How dominating is this defense? Consider this, they have given up just 14.4 points, per game, with just 36.4 yard per game on the ground. If you can stop the run, and run the football yourself, you have the makings of a great football team, and UM is able to do both. In fact, opponents are converting only 22% of their 3rd down conversions with just 238 yards per game of total defense given up. Their aggressive play has also netted them 17 sacks for the year.
It all begins up front with probably the best defensive front wall we have seen in some time. Lamarr Woodley off the edge at defensive end is usually unblockable. Woodley leads the team with five sacks and seven tackles for loss. Alan Branch at defensive tackle looks like a solid NFL prospect. Branch is disruptive against the run, and although not a traditional pass rusher, bull rushes well and knocks offensive linemen into their own backfield. Tim Jamison is a "freak" who simply blows up blockers in front of him. Rondell Biggs is finally living up to his potential after several one on one meetings with Lloyd Carr and is solid against the run, and he has three sacks and five tackles for loss. Terrance Taylor and Will Johnson, rotate opposite of Branch and both are having had good years. It's rare that a line with both upper classmen and lower classmen are all playing at an equally high level. Usually the lower classmen are on a learning curve, but that is not the case here.
Michigan State's banged up offensive line is going to have their hands full with UM's defensive front wall and must neutralize them for the Spartans to have a chance. Notice I did not say dominate them, that is because I don't think that is impossible. Both sides should win some battles here and there dependent if MSU comes out and plays physical. Spartans blockers need to keep UM's front wall off Stanton and give him time to throw, and try to find some running holes against a defense that tends to over pursue. If they can do this, MSU has a good chance of succeeding against UM's second and third tiers of defense.
At linebacker UM has aggressive Dave Harris back in the middle and he led the team in tackles a year ago and that is the case this year with 35 stops. Last year he was in charge of spying on Drew Stanton to keep his Stanton's running from hurting the Wolverines. This is a critical match-up for the Spartans as the the blockers up front need to keep Harris occupied and away from Stanton. Prescott Burgess has made some big plays this year, including an interception return against Notre Dame and is starting to live up to his expectations. Chris Graham, Johnny Thompson,and Shawn Grable are decent but this could be an area for MSU to attack. All these guys are decent against the run but may be vunerable to the pass, providing Stanton has time to throw. Look for underneath and short crossing routes from MSU to keep the chains moving.
At one cornerback is Leon Hall, who is loved by NFL scouts for his lock down cover skills. The other corner is Morgan Trent, who is improving but has had a lot of problems with man to man coverage in the past. Brandon Harrison is small in stature but has played well when given the opportunity, he got burned by MSU's Kerry Reed last year and may play nickle back. Speedy Johnny Sear and Charles Stewart give depth here. The safeties are Brandent Englemon and Willis Barringer, who do not give up big plays which helps a defense enormously. It certainly looks like back-up safety Jamar Adams or Harrison when in the game are the guys that tend to give up yardage, and MSU will have to be aware of that.
If MSU's offensive line can neutralize the Wolverine defensive front, slow the pass rush and open some running holes, UM is vunerable on the second and third tiers of defense. That is a big if however, as that has not happened too often this year. Then again, the Wolverines have not faced a offense like the Spartans if (and that's a big if), the Spartans play with passion and emotion.