Big Ten preview: Michigan State

Michigan State fell far below the bar of typical high expectations last season. After back-to-back 11-victory seasons, the Spartans finished a disappointing 7-6 and fourth in the Big Ten Legends Division.

"I think of the inches that we didn't come up with," coach Mark Dantonio said of 2012 last month at Big Ten media day. "Our team has a little bit of an edge to it right now. We have a lot of experience back. There is a feeling, I think, among our team that a foundation has been laid but we're still chasing a dream right now."

That feeling prompted the 2013 team mantra: "Chase it."

Moving away from the disappointment of 2012 is the goal. The Spartans lost six games by a combined 30 points. Five of those games were losses by a combined 13 points.

"We were a couple of inches from being 11-1," cornerback Darqueze Dennard said. "It gives us confidence we can be on top."

As usual, the Spartans defense is expected to carry the team.

Last season, the unit finished fourth nationally in total defense allowing only 274.4 yards per game. It ranked first in the Big Ten in scoring defense (16.3 points allowed per game), rushing defense (98.6 yards) and pass efficiency defense (98.8 rating).

Linebacker Max Bullough and Dennard are the leaders of the imposing crew.

"The defensive side of the ball is loaded with seven starters back with a lot of players ready to make their mark," Dantonio said.

The mark on offense is a question mark.

As the season opener against Western Michigan on Aug. 30 in East Lansing, Mich., approaches, the Spartans camp has been buzzing with quarterback news. The starting role still is up for grabs with reports about freshman Damion Terry's emergence making the quarterback battle a four-man fight.

Terry, at 6 foot 3 and 222 pounds, impressed during a recent scrimmage and has a chance of being the starter. Incumbent Andrew Maxwell is on equal footing with sophomore Connor Cook and redshirt freshman Tyler O'Connor.

Four offensive linemen return, which is an obvious plus along with top receivers Bennie Fowler and Keith Mumphery.

"Our offensive side of the ball, a lot of players back, a lot of experience back at wide receiver," Dantonio said.

But replacing running back Le'Veon Bell will be a challenge after losing him early to the NFL. The Spartans will try converted linebacker Riley Bullough, Max's brother, and freshmen at the position in hopes of finding a spark.

But with their defense, even a small spark on offense could be enough to help the Spartans fight for a spot at the top of the Big Ten.

"We're hungry and humble," Dennard said. "That's how the whole team is presenting itself right now."

Up next: Nebraska

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