Top defense, improving offense have Michigan State on rise

Top defense, improving offense have Michigan State on rise
October 8, 2013, 8:45 pm
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Vinnie Duber

Things are looking up for the Michigan State Spartans.

While the Spartan defense has been among the best if not the best in the country all season long, it's the Spartan offense's — the one that was outscored by its own defensive end through two weeks — coming around that could be real bad news for the rest of the Big Ten.

Everyone knows about this defense. It ranks No. 1 in the country in total defense, allowing just 203.8 yards per game, and rushing defense, allowing an astonishing 51.2 rushing yards per game. It's seventh in the country with 13.4 points per game and eighth in passing defense with 152.6 passing yards per game. And all those numbers rank at the top of the Big Ten.

"I do believe this is an excellent defense that we have," head coach Mark Dantonio said during his weekly press conference Tuesday. "I do believe that there's a lot of pride there based on things statistically right now. We're playing extremely well. But the key is do you play well against every football team that you play against, I think, because every football team that you play against is going to bring a little bit different mentality or concept or the way they do things to you, so you have to be able to adjust every single week. This week is going to be different than next week, is going to be different than Illinois, is going to be different than the following week.

"You know, the ability to adapt and change as you move forward in your schedule I think is key to your success. Thus far we've been able to do that."

[MORE: Wisconsin's weapons allow no rest for Northwestern defense]

Look at just this week's game against Iowa, when 

Michigan State held the Hawkeyes to 23 rushing yards. Twenty three. And the Hawkeyes boast one of the conference's best backs in Mark Weisman, who entered this past weekend as the country's leader in rushing attempts but was limited to nine yards vs. the Spartans.

"It's very gratifying, and as a defensive coach I respect that extremely because I know how hard it is to do," Dantonio said. "If you look around the country, it's not being done very often, and especially in this day and age with all the different offenses and things that go along with offensive football. It's a big positive for all of us, but I think we gain confidence from it."

But while that defense is dominant, it's a resurgent offense that could really make Michigan State a Big Ten championship contender.

The Spartans put up more than 400 yards of offense in their Big Ten opener this past week against Iowa, a 26-14 win. That's not exactly the Oregon Ducks, but it's still pretty impressive considering were things started for Sparty.

Right from the get-go, before the season started, the Michigan State offense was having problems, or at the very least uncertainties. Dantonio was unsettled on a quarterback until the first game, when he went with Andrew Maxwell likely because that's who started the majority of games last season in East Lansing. But that decision was instantly shone to be less than ideal, as Dantonio shuffled QBs through the first few games.

[RELATED: Ohio State wins three B1G awards after win vs. Northwestern]

He finally settled on Connor Cook in the team's third game against FCS opponent Youngstown State, and Cook excelled, throwing for four touchdowns. But against Notre Dame, Cook was mediocre at best, and Dantonio shockingly lifted him in favor of Maxwell on the game's final drive. Maxwell looked awful in his only three passing attempts of the game, and afterward, Dantonio treated it like it was no big deal to remove the guy who'd played the entire game to that point with a chance to win still available.

But Cook came back for Iowa this past Saturday and looked strong, completing 25 of 44 passes for 277 yards and a pair of touchdowns.

"I think right now we're going to go with one quarterback, and that's how I feel," Dantonio said at his Tuesday press conference. "I feel like Connor played well this last game. We're asking our quarterback to create. I think he created. I thought he threw the ball very effectively. The ball was caught effectively down the field. He had a couple runs. He's a threat to run.

"With that in mind, I think we'll just go with that direction here, and I was extremely — I was impressed with the way he played last week."

[MORE: Big Ten Power Rankings: Week 6]

So while it's still unknown whether Cook can remain a high-quality quarterback the rest of the season, he's clearly elevated himself above his fellow signal-callers and has made the Michigan State offense respectable, something that unit certainly needed after scoring just two touchdowns in its first two games against Western Michigan and South Florida.

And, on top of all that, the schedule is quite favorable for Dantonio's team. The Spartans currently sit at 4-1 — with a four-point loss in South Bend being the lone loss — and could be looking at one of the conference's best records, as they wrap up October with games against Indiana, Purdue and Illinois.

So with less-than-elite Big Ten teams on the docket and what could be the nation's best all-around defense, there's plenty of reason why things are looking up for the Michigan State Spartans.