Michigan State cornerback Darqueze Dennard is facemasked by Northwestern… (Andrew Nelles / Associated…)
You won't find senior cornerback Darqueze Dennard's greatness in any analytic study of NCAA statistics.
Thirty players have more interceptions than Dennard's four, and he's not listed among the leaders in pass breakups.
Three of his Michigan State teammates have more tackles.
Yet, Dennard could be the most valuable player of Wednesday's Rose Bowl game against Stanford without having his name called by the public-address announcer.
You often measure a cornerback's greatness by the number of cricket chirps you hear on his side of the field.
No one is comparing Dennard to Deion Sanders, one of the best coverage cornerbacks ever, but he enjoys similar respect. Sanders was an electrifying player even though there were games he spent in isolation because opposing quarterbacks approached him like an infectious disease.
Dennard has that kind of influence.
Mike Bloomgren, Stanford's director of offense, said Dennard reminds him of NFL star Darrelle Revis.
"A guy that just locks people down," said Bloomgren, who coached with the New York Jets before joining Stanford's staff.
Dennard is so good he can cut a field in half.
Isaiah Lewis, who plays safety on Dennard's side, said sometimes "I don't even get balls thrown my way … they don't want to throw in that area at all."
Dennard is one of the main reasons Michigan State leads the nation in defense and he has also made the Spartans' offense better. Michigan State pass catchers know they will never face a tougher cornerback than the one they face every day at practice.
After going against Dennard, receiver Bennie Fowler said, "We feel like we can catch the ball on anybody."
Dennard, a senior, doesn't look imposing at 5 feet 11 and 197 pounds, but he will leave Michigan State as arguably the greatest corner in school history.
He is the first Michigan State cornerback to be a consensus first-team All-American. He won the Jim Thorpe Award, given to the nation's top defensive back, and was a finalist for the Bronko Nagurski Award as college football's top defensive player.
No one could have projected stardom for this overachiever from Dry Branch, Ga. He was nearly invisible at Twiggs County High and received only one other scholarship offer, from Middle Tennessee State. And even that was later rescinded.
Dave Warner, a Michigan State assistant, noticed Dennard during a game in which he was scouting an opposing player, Keith Mumphery.
Warner told Coach Mark Dantonio about Dennard and Michigan State ended up signing both players.
Dennard said he was motivated by watching his mother work hard hours and by a grandfather who worked in the kaolin mines. Dennard remembers him coming home with his uniform caked in chalk.
"They motivated me and told me I had to go a different route because they didn't want me to be that kind of worker," he said.
Dennard said friends in Georgia were initially disappointed he didn't attend a local college until they learned why: nobody wanted him.
"A lot of people where I'm from actually became Michigan State Spartan fans," Dennard said. "They root for Michigan State, week in, week out … because I came here."
He never imagined getting a chance to star in the 100th Rose Bowl. Dennard has become a determined, tough and unselfish teammate who isn't afraid to tackle. With starting linebacker Max Bullough suspended for the game, Dennard said he is ready to channel his inner Dick Butkus.
"I don't shy away from contact," Dennard said.
He's ready to put on his "big boy" shoulder pads and help the defense stop Stanford's punishing ground attack.
"It's going to be fun," Dennard said. "No DB on our staff just wants to cover, we want to be a complete player."
Dennard's primary focus, though, will be on Stanford's Ty Montgomery, who has 58 catches for 937 yards and, at 6-2 and 215 pounds, is taller, bigger and stronger than Dennard.
Teammates say Dennard spends hours studying his opponents' tendencies.
"He knows the game," said Lewis, Michigan State's safety. "He knows what kind of route is going to come, what kind of receiver it is, what kind of routes he runs, how fast he is."
Dennard says Stanford's receivers are overlooked because the Cardinal puts so much emphasis on the run game.
He says Montgomery, in particular, is "a great player. He's fast. He catches the ball. I mean he's great after the catch as well. When you get the ball in his hands, he's got the chance to go 99 yards with the quickness. I love the way he plays the game. … I'm really looking forward to the challenge."
If everything goes well for Michigan State, you may not even know Dennard was there. Montgomery either.