Michigan State's secondary had a big-play problem in 2009. The Spartans gave up too many and made too few of their own.
Consequently, Michigan State ranked last in the Big Ten in pass defense (267.6 ypg), pass touchdowns allowed (32) and fewest takeaways (14). The Spartans ranked second to last in the league in interceptions with just six.
When the players started preparing for the 2010 camp, they didn't take long to find a group motto.
"We came up with MAP," safety Trenton Robinson said.
It translates easily: Make. A. Play.
"In our heads going into the season and everything, it was like, 'We've got to make a play,'" Robinson said. "If one guy in camp or during spring ball would make a play, everybody would be like, 'MAP. Make a play. Somebody make a play.’
"That was our biggest focus, just making plays."
The Spartans' defensive backs made plenty of plays this fall as Michigan State surged to 11-1 and a share of the Big Ten championship.
Michigan State ranked second in the Big Ten and tied for 11th nationally in interceptions with 17, nearly tripling its total from 2009. The Spartans had four games with multiple interceptions, including a four-pick performance against Northern Colorado and three picks against both Michigan and Illinois.
All four starting defensive backs -- safeties Robinson and Marcus Hyde, and cornerbacks Chris L. Rucker and Johnny Adams -- finished the regular season nationally ranked in passes defended. They combined for 12 interceptions and 30 passes defended.
Arguably no position group in the Big Ten had a bigger one-year turnaround than Michigan State's secondary, as all four starters received second-team all-conference honors from either the coaches or media.
"Last year, we would get in position to make a play, but we just couldn’t come down with it or break it up," Robinson said. "This year, we’re making plays on the ball. When the ball goes up, we’re trying to turn into wide receivers, getting interceptions, knocking the ball down. That's the biggest difference."
Spartans quarterback Kirk Cousins saw an attitude change among the defensive backs this fall.
"They felt like they didn't live up to expectations last year and that wouldn't happen again," Cousins said. "They simply made a decision to play at a higher level and play with confidence. At the same time, coverage can be a result of pressure from the D-line. When the whole defensive steps up, including the defensive line, they're able to pressure a quarterback and force them to make poor decisions.
"That's going to help the secondary."
Michigan State will need every area of its defense to be clicking against Alabama in the Capital One Bowl. The Tide boast a veteran quarterback in Greg McElroy, two outstanding running backs in former Heisman Trophy winner Mark Ingram and Trent Richardson, and an elite receiver in Julio Jones.
"They're going to throw the ball deep on us, and I feel like Chris Rucker and Johnny will be in position on those wide receivers," Robinson said. "It's just going to come down to who’s going to make that play. Hopefully, it's us."