EAST LANSING - It only seems fitting that the 500th game in Spartan Stadium should be played under the backdrop of a Homecoming battle that features the nation's best defense versus the country's best offense.
When Michigan State (4-1, 1-0 Big Ten) faces Indiana (3-2, 1-0) at noon on Saturday (ESPN2) in what could be considered the Something's Gotta Give Bowl, the Spartans will be doing so with a defense that is ranked No. 1 in the NCAA's FBS in total defense, rushing defense, pass efficiency defense and opponent third-down conversions.
Additionally, the Spartans' defense, which has allowed just 3.28 yards per play - also good for No. 1 in the FBS - is seventh nationally in scoring defense at 13.4 points per game and eighth in the country in passing defense at 152.6 yards per contest.
"They play as good of defense as there is in this country, starting with Coach Dantonio, Coach Narduzzi. So (it will be a) great challenge for our offense,'' second third-year Indiana coach Kevin Wilson said.
All of MSU's impressive defensive numbers will be challenged by an uptempo Hoosiers' offense that looks to run up to 80 plays per contest.
That philosophy has allowed Indiana, which rolled up 41 points last Saturday in a Big Ten opener that resulted in a victory over Penn State, to enter Saturday's showdown with a nation's best 535 yards of total offense a game. That has led to a No. 1 ranking in points at 44.4 a game and has left some to compare the Hoosiers offensive fortunes to the kind you see in a video game.
MSU, which is 63-31-3 in 97 Homecoming games, including a 10-1-1 record against Indiana, will be trying to capture its fifth-straight victory over a Hoosiers' program seventh-year head coach Mark Dantonio has yet to lose to since his arrival.
Eventhough Dantonio has an unblemished record against Indiana, his Spartans were on the ropes in last season's matchup before responding with an emotional second half comeback.
After trailing 17-0 in last year's contest in Bloomington, the Spartans roared back in the final 30 minutes with a resilient performance that led to a 31-27 victory, MSU's 12th in its last 14 meetings with the Hoosiers.
Overall, the Spartans lead the series 45-15-2, having compiled a 22-6-1 mark in games played in East Lansing.
While MSU doesn't expect to be caught as off guard as they appeared during the first half of last season's game, that won't make it any easier against an offense that's designed to wear you down in order to score points by capitalizing on the opponent's mental and physical fatigue.
And just to give you an idea as to how fast the Hoosiers like to play on offense, consider this: The Hoosiers have 11 scoring drives (all touchdowns) under 60 seconds and 17 (16 TDs) under 90 seconds; Seventeen scoring drives (16 TDs) have taken five or fewer plays; Indiana is running one play every 19.9 seconds and 26 (23 TDs) of IU's 32 scoring drives have
taken three minutes or less.
"Our focus will be on just that, being focused and creating energy, and continuing this process, continuing to improve,'' Dantonio said. "So the challenge is for our defense with an offense like that, (is that our) special teams needs to be alert and win that aspect of it, and offensively we need to continue to improve and show consistency in that area.''
The on-field maestro of Indiana's controlled offensive chaos this season is sophomore quarterback Nate Sunfeld, who was benched in favor of then-sophomore Cameron Coffman in last season's game.
This season, Coffman has been replaced by Sunfeld and the 6-foot-5, 230-pound Californian hasn't disappointed in his ascension to the No. 1 spot - eventhough he has shared time under center this season with junior signal caller Tre Roberson.
Roberson, who adds more of a running dimension to IU's offense - he's third on the team in rush yards with 77 and four TDs scored - has also accounted for three TDs through the air after passing for 234 yards in 22 attempts.
But it's Sunfeld's arm that makes the Hoosier engine go, and go fast.
Although he has given up six interceptions through five games, he has accumulated 1,467 yards and produced 13 scores in just 162 passing attempts. He averages 293.4 yards a game.
The top two beneficiaries of Sunfeld's tosses have been wide receivers Cody Latimer and Kofi Hughes.
Latimer, a junior, leads the team with 28 catches for 486 yards and two TDs, while the senior Hughes has added 18 catches for 295 yards and four scores. And as an added bonus, fifth-year senior tight end Ted Bolser and junior wideout Shane Wynn have combined to add 449 yards and eight more receiving TDs in an offense that is averaging 3.2 passing TDs a game.
On the ground, sophomore running back Tevin Coleman adds a team-leading seven scores. Coleman has gained 494 yards rushing and is averaging 6.3 yards a carry.
All of those numbers have produced nearly 30 touchdowns by Indiana and practice sessions that have required MSU's defense to play against three different offensive sets, one after another in order to re-create and simulate the speed the Hoosiers use to get plays off during a game.
Junior safety Kurtis Drummond and senior linebacker Max Bullough, who sounded excited after Tuesday's practice about the prospect of facing such a prolific offense as the one run by Indiana, lead the way for the Spartans in tackles.
"I don't think Indiana is necessarily a team of trickery. I think they're a team that tries to get you moving fast, get you out of your gap or not let you play physical but I look at it as a challenge,'' Bullough said. "We played Iowa last week to try to line up and beat us and we were able to be successful against them. So now, let's try Indiana. They've got a little bit of a different approach and they got the better of us last year, at least for half the game and that's our challenge, to not let that happen again.''
Drummond enters Saturday's game with 30 stops, which includes two for loss and one interception, while Bullough has 28 tackles for a Spartan defense that will be looking to improve on the four touchdowns it has produced this season.
The Spartans, who feature sophomore defensive end Shilique Calhoun's team-leading 12 QB hurries, 4.5 tackles for loss and three fumble recoveries, will also be trying to maintain their excellence in getting the opponent's offense off the field. Through five games this season, MSU leads the nation in three-and-outs, forcing their opponents to give up the ball before getting a first down 55 percent of the time. As a result, MSU averages 7.6 three-and-outs a game.
"Max Bullough, their linebackers (and) their edge players are awesome. They should have graduated three years ago. You see the same cats every week,'' Wilson said. "Their corners lock it down (and) they're competitive. (And) they put 15, 16 kids out there that can play and hunt.''
Of course in order to slow down the Hoosiers, the Spartans will need more of the production they've been getting from a defense that held Iowa to 23 yards rushing and features 13 players who have 10 or more tackles this season.
"I believe (Indiana is) very simple in their approach in terms of runs and passes, and very simple with their offensive line but what puts the pressure on you is the time and the quickness of the throws and trying to get in and out the plays,'' said defensive line coach Ron Burton. "That's the key, their tempo. So the key (for MSU), is after the play is over and getting back to home to being ready to play. Getting lined up, that will be key to what we do.''
On offense, MSU continued to show improvement and stability and will need to continue to do so against an Indiana defense that is giving up 31 points and more than 450 yards of total offense a game.
Sophomore quarterback Connor Cook will be leading an MSU offense that is now averaging 355 yards of total offense and 28.2 points a game.
MSU's run game, which has added true freshman Delton Williams to the mix as its late-game closer on the ground, is still led by junior running back Jeremy Langford, who has gained 323 yards, scored four touchdowns and is averaging 4.3 yards a carry.
Junior Nick Hill has also added 219 yards and touchdown and is averaging 5.2 yards a rush.
The Spartans' passing game, which appeared anemic in the beginning if the season, has received a spark from sophomore Macgarrett Kings and senior Bennie Fowler.
MSU, which has scored seven passing touchdowns through five games, is led by Kings' three TD receptions and 230 yards. Fowler, who has 204 receiving yards and two scores, has really come on in his team's last two games to give Cook and the Spartans' offense another dependable option and playmaker in the passing game.
MSU's offensive prowess could go a long way in determining Saturday's outcome because Indiana's defense, although not a strong suit of the team's makeup, did hold the Nittany Lions to just 70 yards rushing last Saturday.
But eventhough the Hoosiers have some standout defenders like junior linebacker David Cooper and his team-leading 41 stops, which includes 1.5 for loss, and feature 14 players with 11 or more tackles, Indiana's defense has surrendered 31 points a game.
Indiana's second and third leading tacklers are secondary performers.
Fifth-year senior safety Greg Heban and junior cornerback Tim Bennett add 37 and 36 stops, respectively.
Heban leads the Hoosiers' secondary in interceptions with two, while Bennett is No. 1 in the nation with 14 pass breakups. Additionally, sophomore defensive end Nick Mangieri tops the team in tackles for loss with 4.5.
WHAT TO WATCH FOR:
MSU: The Spartans have to score some points. The offense can't depend on the defense to keep the Hoosiers off of the scoreboard. Cook needs to have a game, as good, or better than the one he had at Iowa. Of course, if the Spartans can run the ball with some consistency, that would definitely solidify the team's chances for conference win No. 2.
INDIANA: The Hoosiers' offense is going up against arguably the best defense in the country. That means the defense is going to have to play better than the 31 points a game it's been giving up this season because giving up 30 or more points to a team that has played as well as the Spartans have on defense could mean limited opportunities for success in a close game.
...More... To continue reading this article you must be a member. Sign Up Now for a FREE Trial