Max Bullough can't forget the play. Michigan State's first Rose Bowl trip since 1988 seemed assured, if the Spartans could just make one more stop. "And he was right there," Bullough winced, as though still haunted by the play he couldn't quite make.
"He" was Wisconsin quarterback Russell Wilson, trying desperately to rally the Badgers in the fourth quarter of the inaugural Big Ten Championship game. Michigan State led 39-34, barely four minutes remained, and Wisconsin faced a fourth-and-6 from the MSU 43 on the game's pivotal play. Bullough, then a sophomore middle linebacker and the leading tackler on one of the nation's most feared defenses, dropped back a step or two, then circled to his right to keep Wilson from scrambling for a first down.
But a step before Bullough could reach him, Wilson stopped, hopped back, and waffled a prayer of a pass toward the end zone. Bullough leaped, threw both arms in the air, and just missed knocking the ball off course. The ball landed between two defenders in receiver Jeff Duckworth's arms at the 7, and the Badgers took the lead for good on the next play. Wisconsin celebrated the new year in Pasadena; Michigan State settled for Tampa and the Outback Bowl.
"All the plays our defense made all year, and we couldn't get the one stop when we needed it," Bullough said. "Yeah, it motivates us."
Just what the rest of the Big Ten doesn't want to hear. Michigan State (11-3 in 2011) utilized one of the best defenses in the league's recent history to win the Legends Division last year, holding five opponents to fewer than 10 points. The Spartans led the Big Ten in total defense and rushing defense, sacks and interceptions, and third-down conversions. Not since Ohio State led the nation in defense in 2007 had a Big Ten team ranked so high nationally as MSU's No. 6 spot.
Yet the Spartans defense doesn't consider its 2011 season a success. "Not at all," Bullough said. "We had goals, and we didn't meet them."
They just might this year, and if they do, that defense, which includes eight of last year's starters, figures to be the reason. Coach Mark Dantonio has made progress virtually every year during his five seasons in East Lansing, first making MSU a bowl team, then co-champs of the Big Ten, then Legends Division winner, and finally a New Year's Day bowl winner, having beaten Georgia 33-30 in triple overtime last January.
And true to his roots -- he's a former Buckeyes defensive coordinator, having won a national title under Jim Tressel in 2002 -- Dantonio is doing it with defense. His formula is an aggressive one, to play fast and take a few risks in the secondary in order to put pressure up front -- sometimes with nine defenders in the box -- stop the run and set up third-and-long situations.
"He's one of us," Bullough said of his coach. "Sometimes all you read about is offensive [geniuses], doing new things to score. You don't hear much about coaches who preach defense."
Following the SEC's lead
Dantonio's challenge since being hired away from his first head coaching job at Cincinnati five years ago is not merely to get to a Rose Bowl once. He's trying to establish a consistent winner, to join the Big Ten's elite more or less permanently. Can it be done with a smashmouth defense?
"I think so. ... I really believe that," Dantonio said. "You look at those SEC teams that are winning [national] championships, they're winning with defense. Alabama, they put some of their best athletes in the box, putting unbelievable pressure on the [opponent's] offense, and just force you into making mistakes. Good defensive teams, they have success year after year. That's a model for a lot of teams, not just us."
True, but unlike Alabama, not to mention Ohio State and Michigan, the Spartans don't yet collect enough top-flight recruits to spread them around both sides of the ball. Dantonio's offense this season seems short on receivers and replaces heady quarterback Kirk Cousins with untested understudy Andrew Maxwell. No wonder Michigan State will rely so much on junior tailback Le'Veon Bell to score some points.
But perhaps the Spartans won't need many.
"Our defense gives us a good foundation for success this season," said Dantonio, whose team opens against high-scoring Boise State on Friday. "Good as we were last year, I've challenged them to be even better."
Gholston and much more
They have the talent. William Gholston, a 6-7, 275-pound rhino at defensive end, is the preseason pick by Big Ten media members as the league's best defensive player. His reputation was sullied -- or perhaps embellished -- by a one-game suspension last season for twisting quarterback Denard Robinson's helmet and punching tackle Taylor Lewan during the Michigan game.
"That's not who he is," Dantonio said defensively. "He's a terrific young man who got caught up in our most emotional game. He's really a bright, fun, dedicated leader."
They also have vicious tacklers at all levels of their defense, from All-Big Ten cornerback Johnny Adams and safety Isaiah Lewis, to linebacker Denicos Allen (whose 11 sacks ranked second in the Big Ten), to defensive end Marcus Rush, the perfect bookend to Gholston.
Then there's Bullough, whose father and grandfather each patrolled his position in the middle of Michigan State's defense before him. He's the emotional leader of the unit, and while he acknowledges its gaudy statistics, he downplays any suggestion that it's the best in the Big Ten.
"Certainly we have a lot of talent on defense, but it's not like we can just throw our helmets out there and do it again," Bullough said. "To me, we're starting from scratch. I mean, [we have to] prove it. We didn't get where we wanted to last year, so I guess we've got room for improvement."