When the Michigan State Spartans took the field Friday night against Jacksonville State, few questioned that their defense would be among the best in the conference. The only unknown was whether a group that lost Darqueze Dennard to the first round of the NFL draft and Max Bullough, Denicos Allen and Isaiah Lewis to graduation could maintain the elite play it established in 2013.
In its first game back, the answer was a resounding yes.
Michigan State was supposed to dominate the lowly Ohio Valley opponent. The No. 8 Spartans are coming off a Rose Bowl victory that capped a nearly undefeated campaign in 2013. But the way the defense handled itself in Week 1 was impressive, regardless of the competition.
Jacksonville State had 12 drives throughout the course of the game, five of which came in the first quarter, when the game was still, technically, within reach. During those first five drives, the Gamecocks never held the ball for a minute and a half or entered MSU territory. Meanwhile, four touchdowns by the Spartan offense put the game away before the first change of sides.
Jacksonville State first-quarter drive summary:
1st drive: 4 plays, 37 yards, punt
2nd drive: 3 plays, -1 yards, punt
3rd drive: 3 plays, 23 yards, interception
4th drive: 3 plays, 2 yards, punt
5th drive: 5 plays, 17 yards, interception
In fact, the Gamecocks failed to reach Michigan State's side of the 50-yard line until the third quarter, when favorable field position allowed quarterback Max Shortell to lead his offense to their only score of the game: a 9-yard touchdown pass. Jacksonville State finished its other 11 drives with seven punts, three interceptions and a turnover on downs.
What does dominating a team like Jacksonville State mean? Maybe not much, but with the track record of this Michigan State defense, fans can expect this to set the tone for the rest of the season.
For those still skeptical of Mark Dantonio's defense, you won't have to wait long to find out the truth. Michigan State will travel to Eugene on Saturday to battle perhaps the most intimidating offensive team in the country: the Oregon Ducks.
Oregon's offense is coming off a 62-point performance against South Dakota in which Heisman hopeful Marcus Mariota scored four times. Oregon finished second in the country last season with 7,345 yards of offense and averaged 45.5 points per game.
If the Spartans can slow down the well-oiled machine in Eugene on Saturday, it will answer any questions about the strength of this returning defense.