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December 31, 2013

Ask the Expert: Michigan State

Kickoff of the 100th Rose Bowl is less than 24 hours away, and to preview the matchup, Cardinal Sports Report spoke with Paul Konyndyk of SpartanMag.com.

Cardinal Sports Report: What, exactly, makes Michigan State's defense so good? On paper, with the nation's No. 1 rushing defense and No. 2 passing efficiency defense, the Spartans don't seem to have many weaknesses.

Paul Konyndyk: Improved depth, experience, and discipline have been catalysts for Michigan State's evolution from a Top 10 defense (2011 and 2012) into the No. 1 overall defense in 2013.

Michigan State lost its most experienced playmaker in three-year starter Max Bullough, who was also as good a leader as this defense has had during the Dantonio era. But experience remains a strength. Money linebacker Denicos Allen, strong safety Isaiah Lewis, corner Darqueze Dennard, and defensive end Marcus Rush are three-year starters. Interior defensive linemen Micajah Reynolds and Tyler Hoover, 'Star' linebacker Taiwan Jones, and All-Big Ten free safety Kurtis Drummond are multi-year starters for defensive coordinator Pat Narduzzi.

First-year starters Shilique Calhoun, defensive line MVP in the Big Ten, and sophomore corner Trae Waynes will be candidates for major individual awards next season. Waynes, an honorable mention All-Big Ten corner as a sophomore, does not get the credit he deserves for how well he has played opposite Dennard, the 2013 Thorpe Award recipient.

Senior defensive end Denzel Drone, sophomore linebackers Ed Davis, Darien Harris, sophomore defensive tackles Damon Knox and Mark Scarpinato, and sophomore safety RJ Williamson are some of the quality back-ups that have been key contributors for Michigan State this season.

Kyler Elsworth would also be included in that group if he wasn't starting in place of Bullough at Mike linebacker.

CSR: How do you think Michigan State's defense matches up with a team like Stanford that thrives on the power running game but also takes several deep shots to its speedy receivers?

PK: Without a doubt, the players are looking forward to facing a physical offense that huddles between plays and runs the ball between the tackles.

Michigan State's interior defensive linemen need to play better than they did against Ohio State in the Big Ten Championship.

Michigan State's run defense in 2013 is better than it was a year ago. Stanford's use of extra offensive linemen and jumbo tight ends is unique. This defense, however, has had success stopping the run against pro-style offenses.

Iowa and Minnesota are the only pro-style teams faced by Michigan State in 2013. (Michigan tried to run pro-style sets, but failed miserably in that venture). Iowa rushed for 23 yards against Michigan State in a home loss in the Big Ten opener. Minnesota had better success, rushing for 124 yards on 50 carries (2.5 avg.).

Michigan State held Wisconsin to 19 yards on 37 carries in a rare road win against the Badgers in 2012.

The Spartans haven't had trouble with a power run game for a couple of years. But they haven't played without Bullough, and they haven't faced a team that runs the ball quite like Stanford.

Elsworth and Harris would start at a lot of programs. But they aren't Bullough.

Press coverage on the outside has been a trademark of the Spartan defense during the Dantonio era. The deep ball is something that both of Michigan State's starting corners relish. Dennard and Waynes are the program's two fastest players.

Michigan State corners have been tested with the deep ball throughout the 2013 season. Opponents have resorted to a 'chuck and duck' offense after Michigan State has shut down the run. Waynes and Dennard still see the occasional deep ball, but opponents have schemed to get top receivers matched up on Michigan State safeties.

Ty Montgomery is one of the best in college football. With a quality group of downfield targets at wide receiver, it will be interesting to see how much Stanford tests Michigan State's corners with the deep ball. Don't be surprised if Stanford tries to work on Lewis and Drummond, both of whom are both first-team All-Big Ten selections at safety.

CSR: In what ways and how much do you think the absence of Max Bullough will impact the Spartan defense?

PK: The Michigan State defense has had a handful of opponents score 28 points against them in 2013, but they haven't had anyone wear them down with a physical run game.

Max Bullough is big reason for that. At 250 pounds, he routinely put guards on their backside. His physicality may be missed as much in this game as his ability to get the front seven lined up correctly in this game.

Elsworth was an All-American wrestler in high school. He plays with an extra heartbeat, the type of player capable of playing a career game against Stanford. He may have to.

Without a two-time team captain on the field, there will be a leadership vacuum. Other seniors, Elsworth included, will have to take on a greater leadership role.

CSR: On the other side of the ball, how has Michigan State's offense improved as the season has progressed? Are there any major weaknesses on offense?

PK: A senior-laden O-Line has been a strength from start to finish, but the Michigan State offense didn't begin to gel until Connor Cook settled into the role of starting quarterback and Jeremy Langford emerged as an every down tailback.

Nobody could have imagined that Cook would be a second-team All-Big Ten selection after he completed 6 of 11 passes for 32 yards and no touchdowns in his first career start against South Florida back in September. It would have also been a stretch to imagine that Langford would rush for 1,338 yards and 17 touchdowns as a first-year starter.

Cook has developed into one of the better Big Ten quarterbacks. He is a big, strong-armed passer with a talented group of wide receivers playing with a great deal of confidence.

Langford has quietly become one of the most productive tailbacks in the FBS. Langford led the Big Ten in rushing touchdowns as a first-year starter.

Tight end has been a strength for Michigan State during Dantonio's tenure. But it was a year of transition at tight end with Dion Sims (Miami Dolphins) jumping into the NFL Draft as junior. Michigan State progressed nicely at the position under the direction of first-year co-offensive coordinator Jim Bollman. The Spartans have a functional group of blockers in Josiah Price, Michael Dennis, and Andrew Gleichert, but they have yet to show that they have a tight end capable of keeping an elite edge rusher off of Cook during the course of a game.

Michigan State tight ends had trouble with Ohio State's Joey Bosa in the Big Ten Championship Game. Nebraska's Randy Gregory was also a handful for Spartan tight ends. Both of those guys are among the top pass rushers in the Big Ten along with Michigan State's Shilique Calhoun.

Trent Murphy is going to give Michigan State tight ends a workout. They have to be better than they were against Nebraska and Ohio State for Michigan State to take advantage of the limited number of scoring opportunities it will have against an outstanding Stanford defense. On the flipside, Stanford will have to account for Price who is emerging as a weapon on offense as a pass catcher.

CSR: Michigan State will win if...

PK: Cook plays like he did against Ohio State in the Big Ten Championship.

What impressed me most about Cook's game against Ohio State was his ability to consistently make big plays with his arm even though the Buckeyes took away the run and made Michigan State one dimensional for three quarters.

He exceeded my expectations in a high pressure game against a team from his home state.

CSR: What's your final score prediction and why?

PK: Michigan State 24, Stanford 20.

Stanford has been here before and Michigan State is playing in its first Rose Bowl since 1988.

Experience favors Stanford.

Bullough's absence favors Stanford.

Even so, I think Michigan State will find a way to win this game. Cook has shown tremendous growth at quarterback over the course of the season, and I expect him to take another step forward on a national stage.

I also expect the defense to rally around the absence of their two-time captain, as seniors like Elsworth, Hoover, Reynolds, Dennard, and Lewis elevate their play and take on greater leadership roles.

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