Gophers will go against nation's top defense
The Michigan State football team is so stout on defense that only one other program in the nation has been as highly ranked the past two seasons.
The Spartans, who play host to Minnesota in the Big Ten regular-season finale Saturday (11 a.m.), rank in the top 15 in total, rushing, passing and scoring defense in the Football Bowl Subdivision. The only other team with that distinction: Alabama, winner of three of the past four BCS national championships.
"They are tremendous on defense. Not good, tremendous," Gophers coach Jerry Kill said of the Spartans. "I think what makes them special is that they tackle very well. They are a fundamental team. They block and tackle and are very well coached."
This season, Michigan State (10-1, 7-0 Big Ten) is the nation's top-ranked team in total defense, giving up an average of 236 yards a game.
Kill, now in his third season with the Gophers, says he has followed the rebuilding work of Michigan State coach Mark Dantonio since Kill was coaching at Northern Illinois and Southern Illinois.
"We've always watched and studied programs and the job he has done," Kill said. "I don't know if people understand how good of a job he's done."
Dantonio worth emulating
In the seven years before Dantonio from 2000-07, Michigan State went 38-45, and its best conference finish was tied for fourth. In the seven years with Dantonio, Michigan State is 61-29 and won a share of the Big Ten championship in 2010 and the Leaders Division title in 2011.
Kill said the Gophers and Spartans have similarities on defense; both use four linemen and three linebackers.
"We play wide defensive ends, (and) we both want safety support, which you've got to have in this day and age," Kill said.
While Michigan State is tops in the nation, Minnesota (8-3, 4-3) is just outside the top third (46th) in total defense with 375 yards allowed per game.
Kill looks to the Spartans' cornerbacks as a position of strength and source of freedom for the rest of the defense.
"If you look back at the great defensive football teams, if you have great corners and you can play man coverage ... that makes your defense awful good," Kill said.
A studier of defenses
Dantonio, whose program has made six consecutive bowl appearances, said defensive success starts up front.
"If you don't have great defensive tackles, it's very tough to play good defense because your linebackers play around those guys, your secondary and defensive ends play around those guys," Dantonio said. "As much as anything, those guys have to be explosive. They have to have the ability to take on double teams and maintain the point. They can't get driven off the line of scrimmage. I think our guys have done a great job with that."
The Gophers will try to find holes in the Michigan State defense with a passing game consisting of sophomore quarterback Philip Nelson, redshirt freshman tight end Maxx Williams and true freshmen wide receivers Drew Wolitarsky and Donovahn Jones.
"The more you can play-action pass, you can get the safeties out of the box and you have to have someone go over the top," Kill said. "We feel like we have the people to do it, they're just young."
The Spartans' defense, however, has six senior starters and nine upperclassmen.
"They have some experience on that side of the ball," Kill said. "It's an emphasis, you can tell that. You go to Michigan State, you are going to play defense."