Tuesday, December 3, 2013

Is Spartans Dominating Defense as Good as ND in 2012?

The Spartans defense has finished laying the smackdown on the Big Ten - giving up only 541 rushing yards through 9 conference games (60 yards per game), sacking Devin Gardner seven times, going three straight games without allowing a touchdown - and now has run through its entire schedule without relinquishing the crown as the top ranked unit in the country.

As their improbable season heads toward this Saturday's Big Ten Championship Game and a likely Rose Bowl birth, it got this DSG editor reflecting on Notre Dame's defensive-led revival last fall and asking: which of these units is better? 

Throughout the regular season, the Irish were also the top ranked defense, giving up 12.7 points per game, not relinquishing a first quarter touchdown, and allowing only nine touchdowns in 12 games.

Based on these numbers and the opponents, which defense is/was better: these Spartans or those Irish?

This Jairus Jones to Kurtis Drummond lateral put the Spartans' first points on the board for 2013 and were indicative of the autumn to come.  Michigan State's defense alone outscored their first two opponents, albeit we're talking about South Florida and Youngstown State.

Since that early September romp through a series of unranked opponents, Pat Narduzzi's crew rarely took its foot off the throat of opposing offenses. Even in a week 3 loss in South Bend, it was hardly the Spartans defense that could take the blame as they gave up less yards on the ground (78) than the team incurred in penalties (115). Overall, MSU held Notre Dame to 224 total yards (3.39 per play), the fewest of the Brian Kelly era in South Bend. 

Fast forward more than one month to a drubbing of the Wolverines in East Lansing and it's clear that this Spartans defense not only rises up in big games, but consistently improved through 12 weeks. 

It was just flat out domination by the Spartans in the second half of October: 9 points in three games against Purdue, Illinois, and Michigan. During the stretch, MSU allowed 1.6 yards per run and 26.3 percent of 3rd downs converted. 

Overall, they're currently (by far) the best in total defense and against the run, second best on 3rd downs, and fourth ranked scoring defense

But turn back the clock to last fall. Notre Dame's defense also was ranked first in the nation in scoring, fourth in rushing, and sixth in total yards (305.5 per game) through their first 12 games

Similar to the Spartans run through October, the Irish went four straight games against three top 20 ranked teams - Michigan State, Michigan, Miami, and BCS-bound Stanford - without relinquishing a touchdown. 

Much of this related to the Irish's "bend-don't-break" mantra in the red zone, where they allowed a touchdown on only 24.1 percent of their opponents’ drives inside the 20, the lowest percentage for any FBS team in the last eight seasons. Overall, opponents scored only seven touchdowns and committed five turnovers in 29 red zone possessions. 

With the numbers nearly even, it's worth considering the strength of the schools' opponents. 

Michigan State currently ranks 51st in strength of schedule while Notre Dame ranked sixth last year, according to TeamRankings.com.
And spin the numbers to the right around in your head. Jeff Sagarin breaks down the strength of the Irish's opponents last fall versus the Spartans' opponents over the past 12 games, including an overall strength of opposition (bottom of chart).

Despite bludgeoning the Big Ten, the Spartans have not beat up one team that Sagarin puts in the top 25, let alone the top 10.  

For Notre Dame last fall, this included wins over three top 25 opponents (Stanford, Oklahoma, and Michigan), while giving up only one touchdown - a one yard plunge by Blake Bell - and 256 total yards in these matchups. 

The other critical - and obvious - differences remains the records. Notre Dame's defense - with an occasional spark from Everett Golson and the offense (eg. 4th quarter versus Pitt) - carried the Irish to an undefeated regular season. They pulled out wins when the offense wasn't performing (something the Spartans couldn't do in South Bend this year), made goal line stands late in big games (something the Spartans haven't had to do this year), and outmatched top quality opponents (something the Spartans' Big Ten schedule doesn't allow).
It remains to be seen if the Spartans defense can overpower the Buckeyes and eventually cap a season for the ages with a Rose Bowl Championships.  But through 12 games, the numbers tell the story about where they stack up against the Irish from a year ago.

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