The following is the first of five installments of The Stanford Daily’s “Meet the Spartans” series, which will give an in-depth look at Michigan State leading into the 100th Rose Bowl Game between No. 4 Michigan State and No. 5 Stanford on Jan. 1. Today’s piece will focus on the Spartans’ secondary. Come back to stanforddaily.com/category/sports for the next four days for looks at the Spartans’ front seven, run offense, pass offense and special teams.
The low-down: Michigan State boasts the nation’s sixth-best passing defense, allowing only 167 passing yards per game. The Spartans also rank second (behind only BCS No. 1 Florida State) in surrendering 5.06 yards per pass attempt, and rank first in third down defense by allowing only a 27.7 conversion percentage.
Best player: Darqueze Dennard. The 5-foot-11, 197-pound senior cornerback was a unanimous All-American and won the Jim Thorpe award as the nation’s top defensive back. Dennard finished tied for first on the team with four interceptions and tied for fourth on the team with 59 tackles. According to ESPN Stats and Info, Michigan State’s opponents went a measly 3-for-31 when throwing at Dennard more than 15 yards downfield this season. Dennard, a projected first-round draft pick and cousin of New England Patriots cornerback Alfonzo Dennard, is a three-year starter at cornerback for the Spartans.
Best performance: Against previously unbeaten Ohio State in the Big Ten Championship Game, the Spartans secondary limited the Buckeyes to a season-low 101 passing yards (100 yards below their season average) with a 34.8 completion percentage. The Buckeyes and quarterback Braxton Miller, who might have been involved in the Heisman conversation had it not been for an early-season knee injury, were held to a season-low 4.4 yards per pass attempt in the Spartans’ 34-24 upset victory. Ohio State went 0-for-4 on third downs when throwing the ball against the Spartans secondary.
Worst performance: Despite beating Nebraska 41-28 in a mid-November game, Michigan State allowed two touchdown passes of more than 30 yards and three touchdown passes overall in defeating the Cornhuskers. Nebraska finished the season 93rd in the country with only 199.5 passing yards per game but totaled 210 passing yards against the Spartans with 6.6 yards per pass attempt. A quarter of Spartan opponents’ 12 passing touchdowns came in this late-season matchup.
Highlights of the season: Junior safety and first-team All-Big-Ten selection Kurtis Drummond snagged a one-handed interception in the season opener against Western Michigan.
Earlier in the game, Drummond had also received a lateral after an interception and taken it for a touchdown for the first points of the game.
Against rival Michigan, the Spartans witnessed another “highlight” of the season that made its way onto SportsCenter’s Not Top Ten, unfortunately for this Michigan State fan.
Biggest questions: The Spartans only faced four teams that finished in the top 50 in passing yards per game in the country (Indiana, Illinois, Michigan and Notre Dame) and none that finished in the top 15. Even though the secondary performed well all season long, it has yet to face a significant test from a proven passing offense, much like the team itself is questioned for facing a relatively easy schedule. Can the Spartans shut down top-ranked opponents and talented passing offenses? Ohio State and Notre Dame were unable to find a rhythm against Michigan State, but the Spartans need another strong and efficient performance against a quality offense to validate the statistics.
Matchup with Stanford: While Stanford may not classify as a “proven” passing offense, the Cardinal could potentially pose the biggest threat to the Spartans so far this season due to its speed on the outside with junior receiver Ty Montgomery and sophomore receiver Michael Rector. The Spartans 12 passing touchdowns against came at an average of 19.2 yards each and included four touchdowns of 30 yards or greater, potentially indicating a susceptibility to big plays. However, Dennard should lock down his receiver (likely Montgomery) and the Spartans’ other starting cornerback, 6-foot-1 sophomore Trae Waynes, has the height to at least challenge the Cardinal’s 6-foot-4 junior receiver Devon Cajuste. On paper, this matchup certainly seems to favor the Spartans, but look for the Cardinal to try to expose the Spartans with a long ball or two.
Contact Michael Peterson at mrpeters ‘at’ stanford.edu.