In the spring, as Michigan State defensive players and coaches began to come up with their plans and goals for the season, they settled on one word to describe how they wanted to play: swag.
For the uninformed, that's a slang form of the word swagger. Few defenses in the country are exhibiting that trait more than the Spartans right about now.
"I feel like we've really got swag on our defense," linebacker Denicos Allen said. "Our confidence and swag is growing with every game and every challenge."
It's easy to see why. Michigan State battered, bruised and brutalized Ohio State and Michigan in back-to-back games, allowing just three touchdowns in the two wins while registering a total of 16 sacks. The defense ranks second nationally in yards allowed per game, first in stopping the pass, third against the run and fourth in points allowed.
There don't appear to be any weak links in this chain. The defensive front, anchored by massive tackle Jerel Worthy on the inside, controls the line of scrimmage. Linebackers Max Bullough, Chris Norman and Allen are fast and physical and have more than made up for the loss of veteran stars Greg Jones and Eric Gordon from last year's team. The secondary is dangerous either flying off the edge (see Johnny Adams' sack of Denard Robinson on fourth-and-1 last week) or in coverage (Isaiah Lewis' game-sealing pick-six against the Wolverines).
Combine all that with defensive coordinator Pat Narduzzi's blitz-heavy scheme and you've got the recipe for some serious swag.
"Everybody has a green light," Norman said. "We all have a chance to get after the quarterback. We all have a chance to get into the backfield and shake some stuff up, make some really big plays. Our aggressive style of defense can really mess with the opponent."
The swag also comes from the emotion the Spartans exude on game days. Mark Dantonio said after Saturday's win that he wants his team to "play a little bit angry." Narduzzi talked about "60 minutes of unnecessary roughness," a phrase he and Dantonio spent most of this week deflating. But clearly the defense carries an edge in its approach, which may have gotten a bit out of hand against Michigan.
The Spartans were whistled for 13 penalties and five personal fouls in that game, the most infamous being William Gholston's two 15-yarders for twisting Robinson's facemask in a pile and punching offensive lineman Taylor Lewan after a dust-up between the two. As of midafternoon Thursday, the results of an inquiry into Gholston's fouls hadn't been announced. While Michigan State players aim for a nasty attitude, they don't want to be known for those kinds of penalties.
"We'd like to have some of that stuff back," Norman said. "We did make some poor decisions on Saturday, but the character of the guys on this defense shouldn't be questioned."
The trick for the Spartans this week is to remain disciplined while staying geared up emotionally for the third straight high-stakes game. They may need every ounce of their swag to combat the powerful Wisconsin offense, which leads the country in scoring at 50 points per game.
Shutting down a one-dimensional Ohio State team with a true freshman quarterback was one thing. Corralling Denard Robinson and Michigan's spread-it-out offense was more difficult. Now here come those earth-chewing, 300-pound Badgers offensive linemen, backed by a powerful running game and dual-threat quarterback Russell Wilson.
"This is a drastic change from what we saw last week," Dantonio said. "The challenges continue to mount, so we need to prove ourselves again defensively."
Still, Michigan State's defense is confident in what it can do against Wisconsin. First off, they've done it before. In last year's 34-24 win in East Lansing, the Spartans allowed only 292 total yards -- or about what the Badgers are getting in the first half this season. Asked if last season's showing emboldens the defense this year, Worthy answered, "Oh yeah. Definitely."
And while neither Ohio State nor Michigan plays quite like Wisconsin, the Spartans' own offense does.
"Our offense kind of has the same ideology as they do, so we've seen a lot of similar plays in camp and in spring ball," Norman said. "In a way, we're kind of used to it, so it shouldn't be a shock to us."
The Badgers come into this game as favorites, even on the road. No one has yet found an answer for all they can do on offense with Wilson at the controls. But Michigan State does have that whole swag thing going for it.
"Our defense is willing to take on any challenge in the country," Allen said. "And I think we're ready for it."