Best of Times, Worst of Times: Spartans leave their mark, in more ways than one

Matt Hinton
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BEST OF TIMES: A snapshot of teams, coaches and players at their peak…

Michigan State's Defense. I'm sure Michigan fans can come up with a more appropriate image for the Spartan D than a happy little girl, but Michigan State has rarely looked happier or more impressive than it did in the course of dismantling the Wolverines in a game that didn't seem nearly as close as the final two-touchdown margin. The Spartans held Michigan to season-lows in rushing yards, total yards, yards per play and third down efficiency, sacked Denard Robinson and Devin Gardner seven times and returned their only interception for an icing touchdown in the fourth quarter.

Even more than it "exposed" Michigan's offense, though — there's a bone for all you sports-talk radio fans — the beatdown also validated Michigan State as one of the nastiest defenses in the country. The Spartans started the weekend ranked No. 1 nationally in total defense and among the top five in every other significant category after leaving Ohio State for the buzzards on Oct. 1, and they ended it in roughly the same place. Even in the course of allowing 31 points in its only loss, MSU held Notre Dame to its season-low in total yards by a mile. After Saturday, the Spartans look like clear frontrunners in the Legends Division and serious contenders for the Rose Bowl — at least until Wisconsin comes steamrolling into East Lansing this week to administer the advanced exam.

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Washington's Offense. I thought before the season that sophomore quarterback Keith Price would put up slightly better numbers as a first-year starter then feted predecessor Jake Locker ever did en route to the first round of the NFL Draft — mainly because Locker's numbers at Washington weren't that great. But Price's numbers through six games are, and then some: After his 257-yard, four-touchdown clinic in a 52-24 win over Colorado, Price is among the top ten passers in the nation in terms of completion percentage, touchdowns and overall efficiency, and the 5-1 Huskies are off to their best start in a decade.

How much that has to do with Price's grasp of the offense, as opposed to playing a steady string of subpar defenses, we'll find out Saturday at Stanford. Because we do know this: It's definitely not because of the Husky defense.

Rutgers. Right now — right this very second — the Scarlet Knights are two points from a perfect season and a half-game ahead of Cincinnati and West Virginia for sole possession of first place in the Big East on the heels of their fourth consecutive win, a 21-20 escape against Navy. Saturday they go to struggling Louisville with a chance to make it five straight, more than a lot of people (and one person in particular) expected them to win all year.

If there's a "Greg Schiano Way," this is its purest incarnation since the 2006 squad that won its first nine: Rutgers leads the Big East in scoring defense, ranks among the top five nationally in sacks and tackles for loss and leads the nation in turnover margin with our takeaways per game; before Saturday's two-interception effort against the Midshipmen, the Knights had at least four takeaways in each of the first five and finished in the black in all five. One more win and they'll be bowl-eligible for the sixth time in seven years, at which point any lingering "hot seat" chatter surrounding Schiano will be eclipsed by the rekindled rumors about his interest in the Penn State job.{YSP:MORE}

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WORST OF TIMES: …and of the ones way down in the hole.

Tennessee. After the last three years, I doubt Vol fans harbored much optimism during a 3-1 start in which the '1' — a 33-23 loss at Florida — proved far more illuminating than any of the three, and for their sake, I hope I'm right. With conference play underway in earnest, Tennessee quickly followed up its disappointment in Gainesville with an even bigger disappointment against Georgia, lost its starting quarterback in the process and just got murdered on national television Saturday at LSU.

This week, the oddsmakers expect an even bloodier time at Alabama, which delivered the most lopsided beating in the history of the series last year in Knoxville and appears more than able to drive a stake in the Vols' chances of mounting a back-from-the-dead run at the SEC East title. With games against South Carolina and Arkansas still looming down the stretch, they may just be dead.

Oregon State. The Beavers have been bad from the get-go — they lost the opener to Sacramento State and dropped their next four in such hapless fashion that their first win, over Arizona, prompted the Wildcats to fire their head coach — but after Saturday's 38-28 loss to BYU, it's starting to get ugly: Cornerback Jordan Poyer returned to his car after the game to find it had been keyed along with a vulgar note, and Utah announced today that Oregon State had returned almost half of its allotment of tickets for an Oct. 29 date in Salt Lake City. This week, OSU is an underdog at Washington State, which thumped the Beavers last year in Corvallis by 17 points.

In a fair, patient world, Mike Riley has been too good to his alma mater for too long to worry about a "hot seat." But if the Beavers are headed for a two or three-win season that's reminiscent of the bad old days at Oregon State, a certain segment fan base is probably going to find itself reminding everyone else just how bad those days were. Repeatedly.

The WAC. San Jose State students seemed to enjoy it after a close finish went their way, but in every other respect the Spartans' nationally televised, 28-27 win over Hawaii last Friday was a showcase for just how ugly the football has been this year for a league already fighting for its life. Between them, the Spartans and Warriors combined for a season-high 12 turnovers, including a stretch in which Hawaii gave the ball away on four consecutive possessions in the second quarter (immediately followed by a three-and-out and an interception to begin the second half), which was incredibly exceeded when San Jose reciprocated by giving it away on five consecutive possessions in the third (immediately followed by a missed field goal and a fumble to start the fourth).

That's just the kind of year it's been out there: For the season, no WAC team is above .500, and the five teams stuck in the league when Fresno State, Hawaii and Nevada bolt to the Mountain West next year are collectively ten games below.

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Matt Hinton is on Facebook and Twitter: Follow him @DrSaturday.