The Michigan State Spartans have finished the last two seasons in the top five of the national polls because of a stout defense that shuts down teams in both the run and the pass.
Former All-Big Ten defensive backs like Darqueze Dennard and Trae Waynes were so good that the secondary was known as the “No-Fly Zone.” That defense led Michigan State to a Big Ten Championship, a Rose Bowl title and a win in last year’s Cotton Bowl.
But so far this season, the Spartans defense–while pretty good with players such as defensive end Shilique Calhoun– is not the dominant force of the 2013 and 2014 seasons. This season, the face of the No.7 Spartans is the offense led by quarterback Connor Cook and the weapons he has around him.
Cook is the second in the Big Ten in passing efficiency and fourth in total offense. Michigan State (6-0, 2-0) is averaging 31 points per game. Individually, the senior has passed for 1,334 yards and has thrown 12 touchdown passes and just two interceptions. Cook has completed a little over 59 percent of his passes.
When his team has needed him to come up big, Cook has delivered. Last week against Rutgers (2-3, 0-2) Cook led Michigan State on the 10-play, 76-yard drive that broke a 24-24 tie to win the game. The big play on that drive was a huge 29-yard pass play from Cook to R.J. Shelton. For the game, Cook completed 23-of-38 passes for a season 357 yards and two touchdowns.
“He’s had a tremendous career up to this point thus far,” said Michigan State head coach Mark Dantonio. “He’s used to playing in big games and he has the experience. He knows what to do with the football and he has a quick release. He made some great throws out there. Big time throws for big time yardage. So, he did a great job.”
Enabling Cook to make plays in the passing game is senior wide receiver Aaron Burbridge, who leads the team in receptions with 34 for 560 yards and has four touchdown passes. In the win over Rutgers, Burbridge helped to keep the chains moving for the Spartans with nine catches for 146 yards.
With the graduation of running back Jeremy Langdon, the Michigan State running game has been by committee between R.J. Scott and Madre London. Scott has gained 418 yards with six touchdowns for the Spartans while Madre London has gained 399 yards and scored three touchdowns.
In spite of its unbeaten record and a 10-game winning streak dating back to last year, Michigan State has fallen from the Top Five in the rankings. The Spartans come into the latest Associated Press College football poll at No. 7 after being ranked fourth last week and the week before that they were ranked No. 2.
The reason is that the Spartans have allowed non-ranked opponents with sub-500 records to keep the games too close for comfort. The previous week, Michigan State barely squeezed past an undermanned Purdue squad. The Spartans are not the apple of the pollster’s eyes because they haven’t been blowing teams out by 50 points.
Michigan State will certainly have a chance to silence its critics this Saturday when it takes on No. 12 Michigan (5-1, 2-0) in Ann Arbor. The Wolverines have shut out their last three opponents including last Saturday’s 38-0 shutout of No. 20 Northwestern.
The Michigan defense will be the toughest the Spartans have faced all year. The Wolverines lead the Big Ten in every statistical category on defense. Michigan is allowing just 6.3 points per game and has not allowed a point since a Sept. 19 win over Nevada-Las Vegas.
How the Spartans fare against their arch-rivals could determine if they’re still on the path to get into the College Football Playoff.