Michigan Sate Defense vs. Ohio State Offense

Courtesy of mlive.com

Pat Narduzzi
AP Photo / Al Goldis
EAST LANSING, Mich. — It doesn’t take much to get Pat Narduzzi fired
up. But if you really want to get him going, ask about this year’s Notre
Dame game.

In September, the Irish took advantage of four pass-interference
penalties and a defensive-holding call to hand Michigan State its only
loss of the season. Asked during a recent visit from ESPN.com whether
that game prompted any changes to his aggressive style, the Spartans’
defensive coordinator loaded film of the questionable calls onto his
computer and grew more animated as the plays unfolded on the screen.

The defense run by Pat Narduzzi seems simple but the complexities are beneath the surface.
“We
didn’t make any adjustments,” he said. “I think the officials had to
make adjustments. Just because guys can’t get open doesn’t mean it’s on
us.

“After that game, I continued to say to our guys, ‘Hey, that’s what we do, and that’s how we do it. We’re not going to change.’”

Why would Narduzzi change a thing? Michigan State leads the nation
in total defense and rushing yards allowed and is No. 4 in the FBS in
scoring defense, giving up just over 11 points per game. The Spartans
are understandably confident in their way of doing things heading into
Saturday’s Big Ten title game against Ohio State.

“We’re going to play our game of football,” senior cornerback Darqueze Dennard said. “We’re going to make those guys play our game.”

Continuity is a core belief for Narduzzi, who is in his seventh year
at Michigan State and ninth straight season running a defense under
Mark Dantonio. There’s no real secret to Narduzzi’s system, which seems
simple in its appearance but is complex beneath the surface.

Michigan State lines up in the same 4-3 base on almost every down
except for third-and-long, when it will move to a three-man front.
Against spread teams and passing attacks, the Spartans (unlike most
defenses) will leave their three linebackers on the field instead of
adding more defensive backs. They demand that their cornerbacks defend
receivers one-on-one, freeing up safeties to help against the run.

“People know how we’re going to line up, for the most part,” Narduzzi
said. “They now where our DBs and our LBs are going to line up. But
that’s an advantage to us, too. You may know where we are, but so do
we.”

Sounds pretty basic. And it is — except for the zone blitzes that
Narduzzi dials up out of that base package. A fellow Big Ten defensive
coordinator called Narduzzi earlier this season, looking for tips to
stop a common opponent. Narduzzi said the coordinator told him, “Man,
that pressure you bring, I don’t know how you do it.”

That’s one reason why few other teams have copied Michigan State’s
defense, despite its dominating statistics in recent years. Another
reason is that not every coach is comfortable playing his corners on an
island and blitzing, opening the defense up to potential big plays.

“People know what we’re doing, but they don’t know how we do it,”
Narduzzi said. “We’re the only team in the country that does zone
pressure like this. There’s a risk to it if you don’t know what you’re
doing.”

That’s not a problem for these Spartans.

Since defenders mostly stay at the same spot on the field during
almost every situation, they can master their particular craft. This
year’s defense has certified experts at their jobs who have been in the
system for years, such as Dennard, linebackers Max Bullough and Denicos Allen, safety Isaiah Lewis, and defensive end Marcus Rush. As Ohio State offensive coordinator Tom Herman said Monday: “They’re like a fine wine. They get better with age.”

Darqueze Dennard
Matthew Holst / Getty Images
Darqueze Dennard says Michigan State benefits from the defense’s experience.
“That’s
been really the main part of our success,” Dennard said. “Just knowing
each other and playing with each other for such a long time.”

The veteran players have taken ownership of the defense. Led by
Bullough, they’re able to make their own adjustments during a game when
something isn’t working, which is one reason why Michigan State hasn’t
allowed a second-half point in seven of its 12 games. Dennard had “No
Fly Zone” T-shirts made for all the team’s defensive backs.

Narduzzi and Dantonio both agree that this is the best defense
they’ve had in their seven years at Michigan State. And this Ohio State
team may be their toughest challenge in that time.

The Buckeyes are averaging 48.2 points and 321 rushing yards per
game. While Narduzzi says some opponents this year have abandoned the
running game against his defense, that won’t happen Saturday versus RB Carlos Hyde and QB Braxton Miller.
Narduzzi is so concerned about stopping them that he has gone to full
tackling in practice this week, something the Spartans didn’t do before
last season’s 17-16 loss to the Buckeyes.

“For me to sit here and tell you it’s not our biggest test, I’d just
be lying to you,” Bullough said. “But it’s something that in all
reality, we look forward to.”

Different year, different teams. But last year, Michigan State did
hold Ohio State to its lowest point total in two years under Urban
Meyer, while Narduzzi still laments a fumble return for a touchdown by
his defense that was blown dead by the officials.

“Obviously, it’s a bigger challenge in who you’re playing,” he said.
“But we played them a year ago, so it’s not like we don’t know who
we’re playing against. It’s an opportunity for us to go clean up
something from a year ago.”

Narduzzi hopes the result is different this time around. But little else will change for him or the Spartans’ defense.

Up Next: NFL Week 13 "Fire Schiano - not so fast!"