INDIANAPOLIS - Sophomore Darqueze Dennard will be back on the field as a starting cornerback for Saturday's Big Ten Championship Game against Wisconsin.
Dennard, who was named honorable mention All-Big Ten, sustained an ankle injury during Michigan State's 37-21 victory at Iowa on Nov. 12. He missed Michigan State's last two games of the regular season, although Dantonio said Dennard could have played last week at Northwestern in the case of emergency. Instead, MSU was able to preserve his ankle for this week's Big Ten Championship Game preparation.
Dennard practiced all week.
"Darqueze will start and he's full go," Dantonio said.
Redshirt freshman Kurtis Drummond, a second-string safety, is also available, after missing the last two games. Drummond went down with a head injury at Iowa, and was replaced in the nickel defense by Jairus Jones. Jones played extensively for the first time this season at Iowa, after missing the first eight games with an Achilles tendon rupture which he sustained in April.
Jones served as the nickel back last year. Drummond came on in that capacity when Jones wasn't available. Then Jones returned to the playing group when Drummond went down.
Now, for the first time, both are available.
"Both of those guys (Drummond and Dennard) have practiced the entire week," Dantonio said. "Kurtis has been full go, and he was cleared as of Tuesday, so he's had three practices as well.
"I would expect Jairus Jones and Kurtis Drummond to play equally as much," Dantonio said. "We feel they're both good players and they'll be in our nickel situations when we have five DBs in there, and both of those guys have been successful for us.
"You'll probably see them both, but I think Coach Barnett will probably make those decisions as the game progresses."
WHAT IT MEANS: This is big news for Michigan State. Tony Lippett was gradually getting better as Dennard's replacement at field corner, and although Lippett's three pass break-ups last week at Northwestern looked good in the stat sheet, he is still not nearly as good as Dennard, when Dennard is at his best.
In time, Lippett has a chance to be as good, or better at the cornerback position than Dennard, but he is not there now. Lippett had a major error in a long TD pass by Minnesota three weeks ago, and MSU moved to get Lippett away from Iowa's Marvin McNutt in the late stages of that game three weeks ago by having Johnny Adams take McNutt no matter where he went on the field.
Lippett has made progress, but he is not Dennard.
However, Dennard had some tough moments in the first MSU-Wisconsin meeting while trying to cover crafty Badger WR Jared Abbrederis. He gave up passes of 18 and 20 yards to Abbrederis on glance routes (skinny posts) behind the MSU play-side safety. Dennard played outside technique on these plays, expecting some safety help, but Wisconsin's use of play-action fakes sucked the safety in and left Dennard with no help to the middle. Abbrederis took advantage of the open space and QB Russell Wilson recognized it.
"Abredaris is a good player," said MSU defensive coordinator Pat Narduzzi. "They did some things with faking isolations and getting what we call glance routes, which are skinny posts. They did a good job with them. They did the same thing against Penn State. It's something they'll do.
"You get those safeties down involved in the run game, and they're going to throw it behind them. And that's what happened. We'll do some things maybe a little bit different to try to stop those glance routes."
Dennard was also beaten deep by Abbrederis in the fourth quarter, but Abbrederis dropped the pass.
It was probably Dennard's worst game of the year, although he deserves credit for locking up Abbrederis on a 1-WR route during MSU's game-changing safety in the first quarter. Dennard covered Abbrederis on a deep slant-and-go with help from Isaiah Lewis on that play.
Overall, expect Dennard to seek to do better this time against one of the more challenging receivers he has faced this season.