EAST LANSING – When asked what goes through his mind when he lines up against the Maize and Blue, Michigan State defensive end Greg Taplin dropped the clichés.

“I want to knock this joker out,” Taplin said.

Taplin may not have been kidding about the “joker” comment. He’s expecting to have his way with one of Michigan’s offensive tackles, either Adam Stenavich or Tony Pape.

“I think one of them is kind of slow, so I’m going to try and exploit that,” Taplin said.

If Taplin succeeds in exploiting this unnamed tackle, it will be up to Michigan quarterback John Navarre to avoid the sack. And despite Navarre’s flashy 36-yard touchdown reception against Minnesota, Taplin isn’t too concerned about misfiring once he gets Navarre in his sights.

“He’s kind of like a sitting duck,” Taplin said. “But if that duck has too much time, he’ll rip us apart. We have to get to him and get to him fast.”

That hasn’t been much of a problem for the Big Ten-leading Spartans this season. Michigan State leads the conference in sacks with 34, thanks in part to Taplin (six) and defensive tackle Matthias Askew (six).

Under new coach/”cowboy” John L. Smith, the Spartans’ defensive linemen say they’re encouraged to do anything to get to the opposing quarterback.

“We’re freer than last year,” Taplin said. “It was kind of like you had your gap and you had to stay in that gap (last year). This year, we can be more aggressive in the pass rush, go inside or outside.”

Speaking of last year, senior linebacker Mike Labinjo isn’t going to act like he’s forgotten the Spartans’ 49-3 embarrassment at the hands of Michigan in the Big House. In fact, he remembers the end of the game very clearly.

“It just seemed like even late in the game, they were trying to put more and more points on the board,” Labinjo said. “It was a sign of disrespect.”

Labinjo doesn’t think that Michigan’s disrespect has ceased.

“I don’t think they respect us,” he said. “Personally, I don’t think they respect us at all even though we’re ranked higher.”

Does Michigan just see Michigan State as a bump on the road to Pasadena?

“Yeah, pretty much,” Labinjo said. “They’re going to compliment us (to the media), but personally, I think they could care less about us.”

The Michigan State defense, which leads the Big Ten in turnover margin (plus-15), is using this disrespect as a rallying cry. The Spartans don’t mind that they’re four-point underdogs to Michigan. They’ve been underdogs all year.

“We could probably be ranked No. 1 in the country, and we’d still be underdogs against these guys,” Labinjo said. “People will always put Michigan ahead of Michigan State, and hopefully after this weekend that will change.”

The Spartans are expecting Michigan to stick with the power game early. Their goal is to contain Chris Perry and force the “sitting duck” to beat them.

“If we can force them to throw a little more, our ‘D’-line can do what they do,” Labinjo said. “I think that if our ‘D’-line can get some sacks, it’s going to change the game a lot.”

Michigan State is shaping up to be the biggest surprise team in all of college football. Smith’s spread offense has helped, but without a defensive attitude adjustment, the Spartans wouldn’t be staring at a Big Ten title.

“Last year, we were pretty much pummeled every game,” Labinjo said. “I think we have a lot of guys on this defense that were good players even then, it’s just that maybe the pieces didn’t come together.

“We’ve never pummeled these guys before. It would be nice if we could do that.”

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