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Michigan State’s outstanding ‘D’ will be ready at home against rival Michigan

Sports reporter Steve Greenberg studio. | Rich Hein~Sun-Times.

Sports reporter Steve Greenberg in studio. | Rich Hein~Sun-Times.

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Updated: December 2, 2013 12:47PM

It says so right there on Michigan’s athletics website. The Paul Bunyan Trophy is “the lesser-known of Michigan’s two annual trophy games, shadowed by the nationally recognized Little Brown Jug game between Michigan and Minnesota.”

Look, maybe the Jug affair has a catchier name, but who are the folks in Ann Arbor kidding? If anything lives in the shadows in Minnesota, it’s college football. Only one of those two Michigan rivalries comes close to Bunyanesque stature, and it’s the one involving Michigan State.

Frankly, that has been more because of the Spartans than the Wolverines in recent seasons.

Michigan loves to tweak “little brother” MSU. The Spartans, meanwhile, love nothing more than to beat their fancy-pants in-state rival. They’ve done that four of the last five years, the exception coming in 2012, when Michigan eked out a 12-10 victory.

That was more of an MSU-style game than a Michigan-style game. While the Wolverines scramble to become good enough again to restore national significance to their famous rivalry with Ohio State, it’s the Spartans who’ve managed to form a true identity. Simply put: They’re the best defensive program in the Big Ten, and there isn’t a close second.

It’s why MSU is favored in this game. It’s why MSU, and not Michigan, would pose the biggest threat to the No. 4-ranked Buckeyes in the Big Ten title game in December.

The Spartans are allowing 215.5 yards per game, nearly 30 fewer than Louisville’s second-ranked defense. They’re tops against the run (54.9) and third against the pass (160.6). If coordinator Pat Narduzzi’s unit were complemented by a decent offense, MSU would find itself being taken more seriously by pollsters.

As it is, Narduzzi’s “60 minutes of unnecessary roughness” approach is well known — feared, even — around the Big Ten.

“They bullied us,” Michigan’s star offensive tackle, Taylor Lewan, told reporters this week of the Spartans’ 28-14 victory in East Lansing in 2011. “That’s tough for me to admit because I don’t like getting bullied. . . . We’re not going to get bullied this year.”

That remains to be seen, but bank on the Spartans’ defense being ready to rock. And to stretch the rules, as tends to happen when these teams face each other.

“My main focus is to get our players playing hard, as we always have,” MSU coach Mark Dantonio said. “We’re going to play tough, we’re going to play within the rules, and the refs have to control the game. That’s very important because it goes on at both ends. That’s where I’m at with that.”

The Wolverines haven’t won at Spartan Stadium since 2007. They’ve averaged a scant 16.8 points over the last five meetings. Three of MSU’s four victories during that period were by at least two touchdowns.

Ohio State quarterback Braxton Miller is the star of stars in the Big Ten. Wisconsin running back Melvin Gordon has become a household name, as have a handful of others, including Michigan quarterback Devin Gardner.

Darqueze Dennard, Shilique Calhoun, Max Bullough, Denicos Allen — well, they’re not so widely known. But those four Spartans defenders are at the top of the list of reasons Michigan might not be able to handle this latest Bunyan brawl.


Twitter: @SLGreenberg

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