Secondary coach Corey Raymond had a challenge for his players this week. Hold Michigan State receiver and All-Big Ten candidate B.J. Cunningham to less than 88 yards receiving. It wasn't going to be an easy task, as Cunningham is Kirk Cousins' favorite target and had already amassed 48 catches and 723 yards coming into the game.
He left Memorial Stadium with the same statistics.
The combination of cornerbacks Alfonzo Dennard and Andrew Green nullified Cunningham, holding him without a reception for the first time this year. Cousins targeted his star receiver six times, but other than a five-yard pass interference penalty he drew on Green, Cunningham was a non-factor.
Surprisingly, the few times Cousins tried to get Cunningham involved were when Dennard was in coverage. A preseason All-America candidate, Dennard was slowed early in the season by a leg injury, but said he finally felt back to full strength this week.
The senior had a career-high three pass breakups, all in the first half. He played a critical role in forcing Cousins into one of the worst games in his career.
"I guess he felt that he could try that against them and it didn't work obviously," receiver Brandon Kinnie said. "He looked good. He looked like he got a little pep in his step and he got his balance back."
Raymond's test for his defensive backs may have helped in inspiring Dennard before one of the best games of his career. Defensive coordinator Carl Pelini said Dennard loves challenges and coach Bo Pelini called Dennard "as prideful a player as I've been around."
"We challenged him all week," Carl Pelini said. "He locked his guy down. They may have caught one or two balls on him, but other than that he was all over guys."
Without Dennard's playmaking, the defense would have been hard-pressed to shut down the Spartans' offense in the way it did. Michigan State had 187 yards, and only 86 of those came through the air.
After the game, Carl Pelini rewarded the effort by announcing the defense would get their Blackshirts, the famed black practice jerseys, before Monday's practice. Sure enough, there was some black mixed among the sea of red jerseys at Monday's practice.
"Oh yeah, I think our swagger is coming back for our defense," Dennard said. "I think everybody was doubting us, so we were just trying to show the world that our defense is back."
Not coincidentally, the defense is returning to form along with Dennard. As the injury reduced his effectiveness for the first month and a half of the season, his NFL draft stock began to fall.
But Saturday's showing should prop Dennard back into the discussion of top defensive backs in April's draft. After the win, ESPN draft analyst Mel Kiper tweeted that he thinks Dennard played his way back into the late first-round discussion.
This Saturday's game against Northwestern provides the senior with another chance to boost NFL teams' opinions about him. Northwestern's Dan Persa is the kind of mobile quarterback that has challenged NU's defense in the past. But if his effort against Michigan State says anything, it's that Dennard is more than ready for another test.
"It is nice to have Dennard against anybody," Bo Pelini said. "He is feeling healthy and playing good football."