INDIANAPOLIS: Surprise. Which Michigan State opponent does coach Mark Dantonio believe to be the toughest on the defensive side of the ball?
The former Ohio State defensive coordinator picked the Buckeyes, who gave up more than 600 yards last week to a mediocre Michigan offense.
“A lot of those yards came on screen plays or some broken plays, scramble situations,” Dantonio said Friday. “They just happened to be big gainers. I think they have a culture built in there. That culture has sustained for quite some time in terms of playing good defense.”
The Spartans have the No. 1 ranked defense in the nation; they’re question mark has been moving the ball, which has improved in the latter part of the season.
“I knew we’d find an identity,” Dantonio said. “Obviously, it’s very gratifying, because you need to be balanced offensively, defensively and on special teams if you’re going to have a good football team. Last year, we were more of a one-dimensional team in terms of scoring points, giving up points.”
Since its only loss of the season, to Notre Dame, Michigan State’s offense has picked up the pace with tailback Jeremy Langford and quarterback Connor Cook (Walsh Jesuit) leading the way.
“We came out losing by four,” Dantonio said. “We also came out with the feeling that we should have won the football game. We took a step back in the off week. We planted our feet and drove forward versus Iowa and didn’t look back.”
Langford is a junior, who had a difficult time finding his niche but has become a thousand-yard rusher this year.
“He’s a great athlete, a tremendous athlete,” Dantonio said. “He played tailback; we move him to corner; played him at safety; moved him to wideout; moved him back to tailback and back to wideout, trying to find a way to play him.
“He would start fast at a position then plateau. We moved him back to tailback. I think it’s his natural position. He went through fall [practice] pretty nondescript. We had other guys, and they were all competing. Then he sort of found himself.”
Right guard Marcus Hall, ejected for throwing a punch during the Michigan game last week, has yet to be totally exonerated by coach Urban Meyer.
“He won’t start the game,” Meyer said. “Other than that, we’ll see what happens.”
After he was tossed from the game in Ann Arbor, Hall made an obscene gesture to the fans, which further annoyed his coach.
“I was very, very disappointed in his actions,” Meyer said. “He paid the penalty for the fight, which is he missed three quarters in a rivalry game. That’s not Marcus, but I was really disappointed in his actions after the fight.”
The only Buckeye who won’t play because of an injury is defensive back Christian Bryant, who has missed virtually the entire season with a broken leg.
“Curtis Grant hasn’t played in about five weeks because of a high ankle sprain,” Meyer said of the linebacker. “Philly Brown has a small stress fracture in his leg. That’s why he hasn’t played as much in the last few weeks. It’s healing, but he’s probably not at full strength.”
Both Grant and Brown, the Buckeyes’ starting wideout, will play.
When Dantonio coached at Ohio State, his boss was Jim Tressel, with whom he still keeps in touch.
“I talk to coach Tress every now and then,” Dantonio said. “I talk to him just to settle me as a person. I listen to his advice. He doesn’t talk X’s and O’s. He talks to me more about how to handle situations. He’s been a great friend and a great mentor. I also hear from [Alabama coach] Nick Saban a little bit.”
Lucas Oil Stadium has 64,000 permanent seats, but portable seating raised capacity to 72,000 for a Super Bowl.
Tonight’s game is a sellout, with attendance expected to reach 67,000.
Sheldon Ocker can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.