EAST LANSING, Mich. – Michigan State's top-ranked defense has built its reputation on certain characteristics this season.
Speed. Toughness. Physicality. Violence.
Senior linebacker Denicos Allen embodies all those traits and more.
"You see a relentlessness with this group of guys," linebackers coach Mike Tressel said. "We've been a good defense in the past, but you haven't seen anything like this in terms of the look in their eyes and the relentlessness and exactly the characteristics we talk about when we're talking about Denicos."
It's the nearly unsettling violence that sticks out most, something that was certainly on display during a 29-6 win over rival Michigan on Saturday at Spartan Stadium. Wolverines quarterback Devin Gardner was unable to finish the game after being sacked seven times, and Michigan totaled minus-48 yards rushing.
In the center of it all, Allen had a team-high nine tackles — three for loss — and two sacks.
The performance garnered national attention for the Spartans' defense, while the win put MSU (8-1, 5-0 Big Ten) in the driver's seat in the Legends Division. Michigan State is 1½ games ahead of Nebraska and has a bye Saturday before a Nov. 16 game against the Cornhuskers in Lincoln.
Allen might not receive as much recognition as teammates like linebacker Max Bullough and defensive end Shilique Calhoun, but his impact has been just as significant. Allen's numbers are very good — 57 tackles, 11 for loss, five sacks — but the intangibles and his thirst for violence stand out.
"That is definitely my favorite part," Allen said. "They tried to move me to safety when I came up here and I told them, 'There isn't enough contact back here. I don't like covering. I want to hit somebody.'"
Allen has done plenty of that in his third year as a starting outside linebacker. The Spartans and other Big Ten schools offering scholarships initially envisioned him as a safety due to his then-5-foot-11, 210-pound frame. Allen, however, knew he was tough enough to play linebacker, something embedded in him at an early age in Hamilton, Ohio.
"I grew up in a tough neighborhood," he said. "I had tough family members that always got after me and I was always a smaller guy growing up. I wasn't really the one to get bullied. I didn't like that at all, so I was forced to be tough."
His coaches saw it right away and figured they might have something special.
"If they don't bite as a puppy, they won't bite as a dog," Tressel said. "Denicos has always bitten."
He contributed on special teams as a redshirt freshman and made a big impact by racking up a league-high 11 sacks as a sophomore in 2011. Now, with 40.5 career tackles for loss, Allen is only 7.5 shy of Julian Peterson's school record.
"He's got a knack for being around big plays," coach Mark Dantonio said. "He's an extremely tough guy."
Allen has helped push Michigan State to the top of the Big Ten rankings in total defense, scoring defense, rushing defense and passing defense. If the Spartans can keep it up, they could get a crack at the conference's top offense in Ohio State during the Big Ten Championship game next month.
If the Spartans are able to reach Indianapolis and earn a shot at the Rose Bowl for the second time in three years, it will be largely thanks to a defense that embodies one of its key pieces.
"I think they all look at me and see the physicality, and I think that wears off on a lot of our players," Allen said. "To be on this defense, you have to be tough. Simple as that."