Jake Ryan is earning a reputation as one of the Big Ten's fiercest linebackers.
Max Bullough already had one.
Ryan leads the 23rd-ranked Michigan Wolverines defense as it collides at 3:30 p.m. Saturday with Bullough and the Spartans at Michigan Stadium in Ann Arbor. After posting a career-high 11 tackles and relentlessly hunting down quarterbacks during this past Saturday's 45-0 drubbing of the Illinois Fighting Illini, Ryan will certainly focus his attention on redshirt junior Spartans signal-caller Andrew Maxwell, a first-year starter.
Ryan averages seven tackles per game (1.25 for a loss) and will pose a threat to the Spartans offensive line which has given up 10 sacks this fall. The Wolverines junior has been one of the most dynamic linebackers in the Big Ten and adds a certain aggressive finesse to a defense that allows 17.5 points per game.
However, Bullough averages 8.3 tackles per game and spearheads a defense that gives up 15.7 points per game. The born-to-be Spartans linebacker had 8.5 tackles (0.5 sacks) in Michigan State's 28-14 victory over Michigan in 2011 and has been a prime example of a hard-nosed Spartans defender.
He's not going to be easy for Wolverines linemen to contain by any stretch of the imagination.
Entering the fall, Michigan State's defense had the label of almost-elite—finishing 2011 as a top 10 unit made sure of that. There were questions surrounding the Wolverines, especially after starting standout cornerback Blake Countess fell to injury in Week 1 versus the Alabama Crimson Tide, but they've been all but answered.
Which defense has the advantage? Which defense will complement its offense Saturday as the Wolverines look to snap a four-year losing streak to coach Mark Dantonio's Spartans?
The Spartans have allowed opponents to score on 15-of-17 red-zone attempts compared to Michigan's 14-of-17 rate.
Opponents have converted 2-of-7 fourth downs against Michigan State, while Michigan has budged on fourth 3-of-6 times.
The Spartans lead the Big Ten with a 28.4 percent opponent third-down conversion rate compared to Michigan's 35 percent ratio. Michigan allows 16 first downs per game, while Michigan State isn't far behind, allowing 14.9.
Capitalizing on turnovers will be of the utmost importance Saturday, and the Wolverines average 20.4 return yards per interception (with one touchdown). The Spartans haven't taken one back this season, but average eight yards per interception (both teams have five picks this fall).
Play the Pass and the Run
Michigan State's All Big Ten-caliber cornerback Johnny Adams has five pass deflections and is one of the premier cover guys in the league. Adams' presence largely impacts the Spartans' ability to be so effective against receivers, who gain 103 yards per outing, the second-lowest amount of production in the conference.
Although without Coutness, the Michigan secondary has found a way to buckle down when defending through the air, giving up 103.2 yards per game. Keep in mind that the Wolverines are starting the relatively inexperienced Raymon Taylor at corner; he'll add a dimension of youth-on-youth coverage when going against a green group of Spartans wideouts.
Wolverines quarterback Denard Robinson and Spartans running back Le'Veon Bell are the two top running threats in the Big Ten. Robinson averages 134 yards each game, while Bell churns out 130.
Each defense has to put a lid on Robinson and Bell in order to minimize damage. Michigan State hasn't had much of a problem ruling the ground; its 91.3 yards (second in the Big Ten) per contest average proves that.
Michigan's defense allows 148 yards, but it has improved on a weekly basis.
The Wolverines have the home-field and momentum advantage (it has given up 14 points in the past two games compared to Michigan State's 43), while the Spartans, simply, do not. It's all but certain that the Michigan State defense feels immense pressure, having to contain a high-octane defense that's developing different threats each week will do that to a group.
Obviously, the Wolverines haven't had trouble scoring. Michigan State has, though; its defense has kept it in games. But with a strong offensive showing and and even stronger effort from Ryan, Kenny Demens and the secondary, Michigan should have no problem snapping a 48-month winless drought to Michigan State.
Follow Bleacher Report's Michigan Wolverines football writer Adam Biggers on Twitter @AdamBiggers81