Big Ten bowl preview: Can Spartans' defense stay on top?

Big Ten bowl preview: Can Spartans' defense stay on top?
December 31, 2013, 10:00 pm
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Vinnie Duber

Defense wins championships.

Don't believe it? Just ask the Michigan State Spartans and the Stanford Cardinal.

The two conference champs will collide in Wednesday's Rose Bowl, and they're in this position because of a couple of hard-nosed groups led by a couple of very talented defenses. The Spartans have ranked No. 1 in the country nearly all season long, and that's where they rank entering the postseason in total defense, allowing an average of 248.2 yards each game. The green and white also ranks in the top five in scoring defense and rushing defense. Stanford's no slouch, either, ranking in the No. 15 in total defense and No. 10 in scoring defense.

But while Michigan State enters this game on quite the streak, coming off a big win in the Big Ten title game over Ohio State and playing overall great football, they'll look different come Wednesday. All-conference linebacker Max Bullough was suspended for the Rose Bowl. The leader of the nation's defense won't play. So what does that mean for a unit that has flourished with Bullough calling out plays all season?

"I feel as if we all have to step up," Spartans defensive lineman Shilique Calhoun said Sunday on the Big Ten Network. "There's no one person's job to be like, 'Hey it's my role to fill that.' It's all of us. We all need to get together and be like, 'Hey, we have to do this. It's a unit. It's not just one person, we're a unit.' I feel as if we all need to step up, and we'll do so."

[MORE: Report: Penn State coach Bill O'Brien leaving for Texans]

Replacing Bullough looms as one of the biggest challenges for the Spartans heading into the Rose Bowl, but even bigger might be the Rose Bowl itself. This is Michigan State's first-ever trip to a BCS bowl game and it's first trip to the Rose Bowl since 1988. It's a new level of achievement for Mark Dantonio and his team. Meanwhile, Stanford has been here before. A lot. It's the Cardinal's fourth straight trip to a BCS game and it's second straight Rose Bowl appearance. It's not that many question the Spartans' ability to keep their eyes from getting to wide at the sights and sounds of college football's biggest stage, it's just the fact they have never been on this stage before.

"I think what we have to do is the same thing we talked about going into the championship game: We've got to handle success," Dantonio said Sunday on BTN. "That's a part of being here. There's no question Stanford has a great football team. They've been here, they've experienced this setting, they've experienced playing on this level. It's a lot of hype and all those types of things. I think pressure is good. Stress is not, so we won't stress about it. They have achieved what they've been able to do, now we've got to find out if we're able to play at this level and able to play on this scale. It's exciting for our football team, challenging, but we've gone into a lot of games as the underdog this year. We'll go into this with everybody looking to see how the Spartans are going to feel and handle it. I'm just excited to go out for the game and run out the tunnel."

The unit that will keep Michigan State from getting blinded by the bright lights is that No. 1 defense. Names from that side of the ball littered the rosters of the All-Big Ten teams, including Calhoun, who scored three defensive touchdowns this season, and cornerback Darqueze Dennard, who won the Thorpe Award as the nation's top cornerback. Both players admitted that Stanford's offense — one that mirrors the tough, pounding style of the Spartans themselves — has its own challenges. For starters, there's running back Tyler Gaffney, one of the country's top rushers. He amassed 1,618 yards on the ground this season.

[RELATED: Big Ten bowl preview: Spotlight on offense for Badgers, Gamecocks]

"I think my role changes a little bit. I've got to put on my big-boy pants. I've got to pretty much play linebacker now," Dennard laughed during his Sunday interview on BTN. "I'm looking forward to it. I never shy away from contact, it's just another opportunity to help my front seven out because they helped me out all year with pass rushing and putting pressure on the quarterback for me to get interceptions or pass break-ups."

Talent and experience make Stanford a dangerous opponent. But the Spartans have their own litany of talented players, particularly on defense, and that defense will need to stay No. 1 if Michigan State is going to win all the roses.

No. 4 Michigan State and No. 5 Stanford kick off in the Rose Bowl at 4 p.m. Wednesday.