On Tuesday, we debated who should be the frontrunner for Big Ten offensive player of the year. Naturally, we decided to turn our attention today to who should be the league's defensive player of the year. And the race is even more wide open on this side of the ball with two weeks left in the regular season.
Here's who we see as the top four candidates right now, though others have a strong case as well:
Ohio State LB Ryan Shazier: He leads the Big Ten with 14.5 tackles for loss and paces the No. 3 Buckeyes with 88 total stops, to go along with 4.5 sacks and three forced fumbles.
Wisconsin LB Chris Borland: Borland is the clear leader of a Wisconsin defense that ranks just behind Michigan State. He has 80 tackles and four sacks, though he did miss the Iowa game and most of the Illinois game.
Nebraska DE Randy Gregory: The junior college import leads the Big Ten in sacks with 8.5 and is second to Shazier with 13.5 tackles for loss.
Michigan State CB Darqueze Dennard: The best cornerback in the league, if not the nation, Dennard has three interceptions and makes the Spartans defense go by locking down his side of the field.
To the debate we go …
Those are four pretty good candidates, and we haven't even mentioned guys like Shilique Calhoun, Max Bullough, Denicos Allen, Ra'Shede Hageman, James Morris, etc. Has any player truly separated himself in this race at this point?
Austin Ward: This is about as crowded as a field can get for an individual award, and it's a reflection that there has been some pretty good defense played in the picked-on Big Ten this season. This race is going down to the wire, and a strong case could be made for all of the four finalists -- and the margin isn't that wide between those guys and the next wave of defenders worthy of consideration. Shazier's production and vital importance to an Ohio State team that has had to replace so many key contributors from a year ago pushes him over the top, but it's impossible to ignore how much individual talent is lining up defensively in the league.
Mitch Sherman: It’s still wide open. Each one of the four brings something unique. I’ve seen more of Gregory than the others, and he’s simply an athletic freak, though a better candidate to be the league's top newcomer. Shazier is probably the best football player in this group; Borland is the best leader and difference-maker in the locker room. And while it’s often tough to consider a cornerback in this kind of company, Dennard is dominant in a way I’ve not seen from any player nationally at his position.
Brian Bennett: It's incredibly difficult to decide between the top four candidates we named, and some other defensive players are also having outstanding years. I was leaning toward Borland because of his outstanding leadership, but missing two Big Ten games hurt his cause. Not fair, but in a race this close, that has to factor in. Gregory is really coming on strong. Still too close to call, in my view.
How should we deal with Michigan State's defense? The Spartans have put up some mind-boggling numbers, but with so many stars which one should we single out for this award?
Bennett: The Michigan State defense is one of those rare units that has stars at every level. The sum is greater than the individual parts, but the individual parts are pretty darn great as well. While Calhoun has given the Spartans a much-needed pass rush, Bullough is the engine and Allen the big-play guy, Dennard is the guy who stands out for me. Much of what Pat Narduzzi is able to do stems from having physical cornerbacks who can defend on an island, freeing safeties up to help against the run. And Dennard is the best in the business at that.
Adam Rittenberg: Brian brings up a good point about Michigan State's use of its corners, which also allows linebackers like Allen to blitz so much. Calhoun to me has been the difference maker as Michigan State lacked an elite pass rusher last season. Dennard is the most naturally talented player on the unit, Calhoun gives opposing offensive linemen fits and Bullough doesn't get his due nationally, in my view. I don't think you can single out one player, which is why the unit excels.
Sherman: Normally in this situation, one great teammate can detract from another's candidacy. Not here with Dennard. I agree that he's the most elite among the Spartans' superior unit. As others struggled last week with Nebraska's offense, Dennard eliminated receiver Quincy Enunwa, himself a physical force who has manhandled Big Ten defenders. Halfway through the game, in fact, I wondered if Enunwa was sitting out. Nope, just blanketed by Dennard. Even among the Spartans, he does plenty to stand out.
What can each candidate do in the final two weeks to make a lasting impression?
Sherman: In a tight race, I think you've got to make big plays in big moments, which hurts Gregory, because much of the drama has been removed from this Nebraska season. Wisconsin is still playing for a BCS bowl bid, so a standout performance from Borland on Saturday at Minnesota could help him. It's more complicated for Dennard, who does most of his best work when he's not getting noticed. Shazier's resume looks the most complete among our finalists, and he's got an opportunity to pile up more stats against Indiana and Michigan.
Ward: The one thing missing from Shazier's resume this season is a touchdown, and he knows it. His interception return for a score last season against Penn State was a turning point in a crucial game on the road and a signature moment that summed up his impact for the Buckeyes over the course of the season. And while a defensive touchdown is hard to come by and perhaps shouldn't make much of a difference, it can be a valuable tiebreaker of sorts given the situation. Since Shazier is already leading the race in my opinion, that could seal the deal.
Rittenberg: It's all about making impact plays, ideally in big games with something on the line. Borland still is chasing the NCAA forced fumbles record. If he can break it during the next two games, his candidacy will be helped. Shazier already has some signature moments, but a monster game against Michigan -- always a national showcase game -- will help him. Dennard has matched his interceptions total (3) from the past two seasons; now, can he eclipse it? Calhoun and Gregory both have put themselves on the radar, but they'll need some big days down the stretch to beat out the more familiar names.
Who would get your vote if the season ended today? Make a case for your candidate.
Sherman: I'm going with Borland. Perhaps it's somewhat sentimental. After all, Shazier has better numbers on championship-caliber team. Gregory and Dennard are better athletes with more ability to dominate. But I love Borland's story -- the underdog Ohio kid who had no chance to play for his home-state school, so he left for a division rival and helped the Badgers advance three times to the Rose Bowl. And now, as a senior, he's the heart and soul of a strong unit, such a smart player and featured on perhaps the nation's most underrated team. The injury hurt his stats, but I can't help but constantly keep watch of Borland. Badgers foes are advised to do the same.
Bennett: It's Shazier right now, by a nose. He makes plays all over the field, and with a young defensive front, Bradley Roby having a disappointing year and Christian Bryant out with an injury, the junior linebacker has led the way for Ohio State. He showed his value last week at Illinois when the Buckeyes were down two starting linebackers by recording 16 tackles and a key safety. He could have won the award last year and probably will do so this year.
Ward: Shazier. There's really no way to overstate the importance of the junior linebacker to the Ohio State defense, which would be completely lost if not for Shazier providing stability, experience, leadership and an enormous amount of plays all over the field. Despite needing to replace the entire defensive line, two starters next to him at linebacker and losing safety Christian Bryant to a fractured ankle, Shazier has kept the Buckeyes in the top four in the Big Ten in scoring and total defense, which is no small feat. He's the total package, everything the Big Ten defensive player of the year should be.
Rittenberg: It's between Shazier, Borland and Dennard for me. Ohio State's defense can't match Wisconsin or Michigan State, but both of those units returned a lot more from the 2012 team. Shazier not only continues to make huge plays, but as I mentioned earlier, he leads a young linebacker corps and helps guide a line that had to replace all four starters from last year's team. Borland would be the first one I'd pick to start my team, but I also give Shazier the edge heading into the final two weeks.