Coach says Michigan State defense can improve

Associated Press
Updated 10/8/2013 4:55 PM
  • Michigan State cornerback Darqueze Dennard celebrates with fans after Saturday's road win against Iowa.

    Michigan State cornerback Darqueze Dennard celebrates with fans after Saturday's road win against Iowa. Associated Press

EAST LANSING, Mich. -- Mark Dantonio knows Michigan State's top-ranked defense can get better, with no better time to do that than against Indiana's league-leading offense on Saturday.

The Spartans (4-1, 1-0 Big Ten) are No. 1 in the nation in total defense, rushing defense, pass efficiency defense and opponents' third-down conversions. The Hoosiers (3-2, 1-0) are tops in the conference in total offense, passing yards and yards per completion.

"You evaluate it at the end of the year, not in the middle," Dantonio said Tuesday. "The sky was falling when we gave up two touchdowns last week. But the key is to play well against every team you play."

Michigan State has held 40 of 84 opponents to less than 100 yards rushing in Dantonio's seven seasons as head coach, including all five games this year. Overall, the Spartans are allowing just 51.2 yards per game on the ground.

After ranking among the nation's top five defenses the past two seasons, Michigan State has taken it up a notch, yielding 203.8 yards per game, a pass efficiency of 81.16 and 22-percent success on third down.

Something will have to give, however, with Indiana averaging 535 yards per game, 346 per week through the air and 14.7 yards per completion. The Hoosiers have scored 30 TDs, 22 more than the Spartans have allowed.

"Indiana is a much-improved football team, taking 11 or 12 seconds to snap the ball," Dantonio said of the Big Ten's fastest tempo. "Things get a little sloppy on defense. It's hard to sustain, so we need to work on that."

Michigan State learned a lot about Indiana's hurry-up last year, trailing 17-0 and 27-14 before slamming the door in the second half. The offense kicked in with 17 straight points for a four-point victory in Bloomington.

The Spartans will practice against two offenses this week to try to simulate the speed of the Hoosiers. Yet, the best approach is to produce three-and-outs, putting the pressure back on an Indiana defense that ranks last in the league in several categories.

"You work on it all day, but it's still an adjustment on game day," Dantonio said. "I'm not just going to be sitting in the office watching CNN this week."

Indiana's offense averages 77 plays per game and Michigan State's 74. That shows that opportunity can come from three-and-outs, with the Spartans producing 10 of those brief possessions last week in a 26-14 win at Iowa.

"Last year, our defense had three-and-outs about 60 percent of the time," Dantonio said. "But with Indiana, I think about 15 of its touchdowns have come in 90 seconds or less."

Michigan State's homecoming weekend will feature a return of many of the members of the program's last Rose Bowl team, a 9-2-1 squad that beat USC twice in one season and didn't lose a game after Sept. 26. The game that determined the Big Ten champ was a 27-3 triumph over the Hoosiers.

None of those Spartans will be in uniform. But this year's Dantonio-Pat Narduzzi-led defense is doing a first-rate impersonation of the George Perles-Nick Saban-directed unit 26 years ago.

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