ESPN: Michigan football has 5 of best defenses ever but this Michigan State team tops them

·5 min read

Like most Big Ten programs, when Michigan football and Michigan State football are at their best, it's usually because of the defense.

So when ESPN's Bill Connelly decided to stack up the best 50 college defense of all-time it's no surprise both programs were included. Michigan had far more entries, with five teams making the ranks, but Michigan State had the highest-rated Big Ten defense on the list.

In 2021, MSU's offense, led by one of the nation's best running backs and steadiest quarterbacks, was explosive en route to a 11-2 finish, but that's not usually the case for the Spartans.

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Mark Dantonio — thanks in large part to his defenses — had six seasons of 10 wins in an eight-year span beginning in 2010, topping out with a 2015 College Football Playoff appearance. Somewhat surprisingly, none of those teams were listed here.

Michigan had a more productive, if not quite as explosive, offense in 2021 and the same stingy defense.

U-M has featured crushing defenses before, during and after the modernization of college football. Whether it's Fielding Yost's early 20th century squads allowing zero, two or six points over the course of a season or Bump Elliott's 1964 Rose Bowl team, which gave up just 84 points over 10 games, U-M has consistently had one of the country's more talented defenses. That's why Michigan's five teams to make the top 50 was tied with LSU behind Alabama for the second-most of any program.

Here are some other things we noticed:

All hail the 1965 MSU defense

The Nos. 1, 2, 3 and 4 defenses (2017 Alabama, 2016 Alabama, 1959 Ole Miss and 1959 LSU, respectively) hail from the SEC. But bringing up the rear of the top five is Duffy Daugherty's Spartans.

"These Spartans allowed 13 combined points to No. 4 Notre Dame and No. 6 Purdue. They destroyed Michigan and Ohio State by a combined 56-14," Connelly wrote. "They boasted future Hall of Famers at both defensive end (Bubba Smith) and safety (George Webster), plus two other All-Americans in between.

"If college football had still been deciding its national champion before the bowl games, Michigan State would have taken the title after a rampant 10-0 regular season.

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MSU was downright dominant. In the regular reason, the Spartans allowed double-digit points three times and played just one game that finished within a possession.

The only time MSU allowed two touchdowns that year was against UCLA in the Rose Bowl — and that was with the help of two short fields.

"UCLA scored after a muffed punt at the MSU 6, then pulled off a surprise onside kick and quickly scored again. That was what it took to score even 14 points on the Spartans ... And it kept a title ring off the fingers of members of what was evidently the best non-SEC defense ever," Connelly wrote.

Duffy Daugherty, left, and three members of the 1965 powerhouse Spartan team meet during halftime of the MSU vs. Illinois game. Left to right, are, defensive ends Bubba Smith and Bob Viney, and linebacker Charlie "Mad Dog" Thornhill. They were on hand to celebrate the squad's 20th reunion, Oct. 19, 1985.
Duffy Daugherty, left, and three members of the 1965 powerhouse Spartan team meet during halftime of the MSU vs. Illinois game. Left to right, are, defensive ends Bubba Smith and Bob Viney, and linebacker Charlie "Mad Dog" Thornhill. They were on hand to celebrate the squad's 20th reunion, Oct. 19, 1985.

Top U-M's defenses: A tradition 70-plus years in the making

The Wolverine teams to make the list span from the 1920s to 1997. There's Tad Wieman's 1927 club, ranked No. 46, that allowed 4.9 points per game. Star U-M football, baseball and basketball player Bennie Oosterbaan was a member of that team and would guide elite defense as the head coach in the 1940s and '50s

Bo Schembechler's 1973 team was ranked No. 40 and allowed 6.2 points per game. But his best squad, and the only other Big Ten team in the top 10, was the 1972 outfit (No. 9) that ceded just 5.2 points per game.

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"Paced by safety Randy Logan and one of the era's best secondaries ... Michigan played two ranked teams in September — No. 6 UCLA and No. 18 Tulane — and allowed a combined 16 points," Connelly wrote. "In the Wolverines' first seven Big Ten games, they allowed 20.

"And even in their lone loss, 14-11 to bitter rival Ohio State, they allowed only 192 yards, 78 of which came on a single touchdown drive. This was the stingiest defense of the stingy Schembechler era."

Not far behind that team is the 1997 national champion Wolverines, ranked the 14th-best defense of all time. Lloyd Carr's team allowed 9.5 points per game. That season Nebraska, the co-national champion, scored 40 points in more than half its games and even had 70 in one. Four Big Ten teams in 1997 averaged 30 points per game.

FILE - In this Jan. 1, 1998, file photo, Michigan's cornerback Charles Woodson (2) leaps to make an interception in the end zone during the first half  in the 84th Rose Bowl NCAA college football game against Washington State in Pasadena, Calif. Woodson has been inducted into the Michigan Sports Hall of Fame. He led Michigan to the 1997 national championship and won the Heisman Trophy. (AP Photo/Mark J. Terrill, File)
FILE - In this Jan. 1, 1998, file photo, Michigan's cornerback Charles Woodson (2) leaps to make an interception in the end zone during the first half in the 84th Rose Bowl NCAA college football game against Washington State in Pasadena, Calif. Woodson has been inducted into the Michigan Sports Hall of Fame. He led Michigan to the 1997 national championship and won the Heisman Trophy. (AP Photo/Mark J. Terrill, File)

But Lloyd Carr's team, led by Heisman winner Charles Woodson, never wavered.

"Michigan's last national title run was defined by the entire defense — from lineman Glen Steele to linebacker Sam Sword to a deep and unforgiving secondary," Connelly wrote. "Despite a schedule that featured four top-10 opponents, the Wolverines allowed more than 16 points just once all year."

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No love for Ohio State?

People criticize Ohio State, which is hard to do with all the Buckeyes' success the past 20 years, for not producing star NFL quarterbacks. But the ESPN list shows that some aren't impressed with Ohio State's defenses. Any of them.

Though Ohio State has 229 wins since 2001, the offense is usually the reason why. The 2019 team allowed just 13.5 points per game and the fewest total yards per game in the nation — but there's an argument that Clemson and Georgia (ranked No. 19 on this list) were better.

And in the late 1990s, OSU had several units that held opponents to 14 or fewer points, but they weren't regarded as the best in the Football Bowl Subdivision.

There was little Big Ten representation outside of Michigan and MSU.

Pre-Great Depression Illinois and Minnesota teams made the list as did Nebraska and Maryland defenses, albeit before those programs joined the Big Ten (we're not counting the histories of USC and UCLA ... yet).

Follow the Free Press on Facebook and Twitter for more news. Tyler Davis can be contacted at tjdavis@freepress.com or on Twitter @TDavisFreep.

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This article originally appeared on Detroit Free Press: Michigan football, Michigan State among best NCAA defenses ever