Big Ten roundtable: Which defense will remain at top?

Linebacker Anthony Walker leads the nation's No. 1 scoring defense. Caylor Arnold/USA TODAY Sports

Five of the nation’s top 15 defensive units, as measured by yardage allowed, reside in the Big Ten. That does not include Michigan State, the usual standard by which other defenses are judged in the league.

You’ve heard all about the defensive accomplishments of the Big Ten as the Michigan-Northwestern clash nears, featuring the first- and second-rated defenses nationally in points allowed.

But we’re just now reaching the midpoint of the season. Which Big Ten defense will stand the test of the time and remain elite after 12 weeks? We discuss:

Dan Murphy: Michigan

Each week has been more suffocating than the last for Michigan’s opponents this year. Since giving up 17 points against Utah (another touchdown came from an interception), the Wolverines’ defense surrendered one bad drive against Oregon State, one broken play against UNLV and then zero points to BYU and Maryland. Michigan already is among the top five in the nation in most defensive statistics, and it’s still getting better.

This shouldn’t come as a great surprise. Defensive coordinator D.J. Durkin established a track record of success in his five seasons at Florida. He’s coaching a group that allowed only 22.4 points per game last season despite being constantly thrown into rocky situations by its offense. That side of the ball is improving, too, which makes it easy to believe that Michigan’s numbers on defense are more than just an early season statistical anomaly. Eventually the Wolverines are going to give up some points, but they’ll still be dominant in November.

Mitch Sherman: Northwestern

Call me a sucker for a good story, but I really like what Pat Fitzgerald said this week about the Wildcats: “There’s great chemistry. There’s great brotherhood and love and trust within our program.”

That trust is most evident in big moments on defense. Northwestern has not allowed a point in its opponents’ three goal-to-go opportunities -- that’s right, just three -- and only one touchdown in 10 red-zone drives. The Wildcats are solid at every level, with breakout performers Anthony Walker and Godwin Igwebuike helping lead the way. Look for Northwestern to continue its defensive rise as the Wildcats improve on offense behind freshman QB Clayton Thorson and a strong running game. Special teams pitch in, too; the Wildcats rank No. 1 nationally in yards allowed per punt return. It’s truly a team effort in Evanston. And without the Buckeyes or Spartans on the schedule, Northwestern is set to feast against the mediocre offenses of the West Division.

Josh Moyer: Ohio State

Sure, statistically, the Buckeyes' defense is ranked behind Michigan, Northwestern and Wisconsin in total yards allowed -- but that number is a little misleading. I'm not even alluding to intangibles, as Ohio State's defense stepped up big last Saturday by preventing a last-second Indiana touchdown. I'm talking about the fact OSU's opponents have run at least 50 more offensive plays than the opponents of those other Big Ten teams. Blame that on the OSU offense or playing faster-paced teams or whatever else, but Urban Meyer's defense still deserves a lot of credit. No B1G defense is allowing a lower opponent completion percentage (47.7 percent) than Ohio State, while only Michigan and Iowa have allowed fewer rushing yards per carry (3.04). This defense is still loaded with All-Americans -- from Joey Bosa to Darron Lee to Vonn Bell --and it would be foolish to write them off. They haven't peaked yet, and they should hold up just fine.

Brian Bennett: Wisconsin

Everybody makes great arguments here, and what's really clear is that this league is blessed with some outstanding defenses. They all deserve praise, but I want to make sure to give the Badgers some love. Wisconsin is allowing just 9.6 points and 278 yards per game and has yielded only 13 total points in its last four games combined. Linebacker Joe Schobert is going bonkers, leading the FBS in sacks (nine) and tackles for loss (13) and tying for the national lead with four forced fumbles. He's one of several standouts for Dave Aranda's defense, which was one of the best in the country last year, too. The Badgers' D isn't getting much help from its offense these days but should be a constant the rest of the season, especially against a less-than-imposing remaining schedule.