LINCOLN — Michigan State coach Mark Dantonio calls football “a game of inches.”
It's not a new or revolutionary line, but the way the Spartans' defense denies opponents, those inches put a spotlight on the scheme developed by Dantonio and his defensive coordinator Pat Narduzzi, and the ferocity with which their players execute it.
Nebraska — the one team to bedevil this defense and beat the Spartans each of the last two years — will get an up-close look Saturday.
“We always look to find a better way,” Dantonio said this week. He's in his seventh year at MSU, and never has his defense been statistically better than this year's version. The numbers at times seem like misprints. Michigan State is:
» First nationally in total defense, giving up 210.2 yards per game — 33 fewer yards than any other FBS defense. Only one FBS defense since 2000 — the 2011 Alabama unit — has given up fewer yards per game in a season. Overall, MSU is giving up 3.47 yards per play.
» First nationally in rush defense at 43.4 yards per game. Should that figure hold, only one FBS defense since 2000 can compare — the 2006 Michigan unit at 43.4 yards per game. The Spartans are allowing 1.62 yards per carry. If carried through the season, it would be the lowest average in the last 12 years.
» First nationally in third-down defense. Opponents convert 26.12 percent of their third downs into first downs.
» Tied for first nationally in fewest red-zone attempts. Opponents have reached the Spartans' 20-yard line just 17 times this year.
» First nationally in opponent yards per pass attempt at 4.9. The Spartans are second nationally in opponent completion percentage at 46.7 percent.
Playing less-than-top-shelf offenses this year has helped. Indiana — eighth nationally in total offense — has the only highly ranked attack MSU has seen. But how else are the Spartans doing it?
“We're understanding our coaching, and we're doing it to a 'T,' ” said sophomore defensive end Shilique Calhoun, who has 6.5 sacks and 11 tackles for loss. “We're not trying to be our own players. We're staying within the defensive scheme and trying to help our brothers in any way we can. We work as a unit — and not as individuals — and that's a big part of why we've been successful.”
Chemistry and teamwork may be easier to forge when Narduzzi's calling the shots. Calhoun calls his coordinator “insane” in an affectionate, admiring way. Narduzzi's been with Dantonio since Dantonio coached at Cincinnati, and the Spartan staff has continuity that helps gets the message across.
Narduzzi is “the mastermind behind all of us,” Calhoun said. “He puts us in such good positions to make the type of plays that we've made this year. He's been a great deal of help. He studies film more than anyone I know.”
The Narduzzi/Dantonio system has distinct features culled from various sources, including Nick Saban and Jimmy Johnson:
» A 4-3 defense that attacks the run with a quick front seven and maximum aggression, including run blitzes that keep linemen's heads on a swivel.
» A “quarters” coverage pass defense that combines tight man-to-man principles on the edge of the field — where the Spartans' cornerbacks crowd the line of scrimmage — with zone principles elsewhere. Michigan State relies on its safeties to be good in single coverage and run support.
» Savvy linebackers, specifically senior Max Bullough, a third-generation Spartan with a photographic memory.
“We've got smart guys on this defense. And they know what they're doing as much as I do, and that's what makes us work,” Bullough said in Michigan State's Gameday Magazine. He wasn't available for interviews this week.
“Max basically knows everyone,” Calhoun said. “He can tell you what you're doing. If you don't, he makes sure. From time to time you'll be watching film and you'll catch him looking back at you saying, 'What's going on here?' He's been a leader for us on and off the field.”
» The emotional quotient. Michigan State, second-fiddle to Michigan for decades until Dantonio arrived, plays with a chip on its shoulder. Angry. Dantonio calls the style “passionate.” Calhoun said it trickles down from Narduzzi.
“We can see he wishes he could be on the field,” Calhoun said. “He doesn't have to say anything. But you know he's going to say something. The emotion in his face, that pours out with his words — he's fighting for us on the sideline, and he's fighting for us from the booth trying to help understand — so it's like, 'Let's execute this for him, he's given his all, so let's give our all so we can be complete.' ”
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Video: The Big Red Today Show, Nov. 12: