Big Ten: Pat Narduzzi
INDIANAPOLIS -- How does a good team become a championship team? It starts with a message from the head coach to the defensive coordinator.
"We need you down here," Michigan State coach Mark Dantonio told Pat Narduzzi.
Narduzzi, the Spartans' defensive coordinator, spends the majority of games in the coaches' booth before joining the team on the sideline for the closing minutes. But after Ohio State scored four times on six possessions to take a 24-17 lead in Saturday night's Big Ten championship game, Dantonio needed his top assistant with the unit, pronto.
Quarterback Braxton Miller and the Buckeyes were piling up yards against the nation's top-ranked defense. Ohio State appeared unstoppable, wiping out a 17-0 deficit and building the narrative of a team bound for the national championship.
Instead, Michigan State changed the script. The Spartans were the ones who finished, the ones who took that final step from good to elite, the ones who handed Urban Meyer his first loss at Ohio State. The ones who, as Dantonio had proclaimed at the team banquet following a disappointing 2012 season, became The Ones.
A 34-24 win secured Michigan State's first outright Big Ten title and its first trip to the Rose Bowl since the 1987 season.
"We just made history today," senior safety Isaiah Lewis said on the field afterward. "I never thought in a million years that I'd be a part of something like this. We finally did it.
The title game felt like a lifetime with several plot twists. Michigan State dominated the first 20 minutes, and Ohio State dominated the middle 20 minutes.
When Narduzzi made his way to the sideline with about four minutes left in the third quarter, linebacker Denicos Allen did a double-take.
"I'm like, 'Oh, man, it's getting real. We've gotta step up,'" Allen said.
The Spartan Dawgs finally got a stop, stuffing Miller on third-and-4. After Michigan State reclaimed the lead on a beautifully designed Connor Cook touchdown pass to tight end Josiah Price, the defense recorded a three-and-out.
But how long could Michigan State keep the nation's No. 3 scoring offense at bay? When Ohio State partially blocked a punt and took possession at the Michigan State 47, a score seemed inevitable. Three plays later, the Buckeyes faced fourth-and-2.
"G Hot Cyclone Gun," Narduzzi said of the play he called. "We had a timeout, and I switched the call right at the last second. It was Denicos coming off of one side, and Taiwan Jones coming off the other edge. I figured whichever [way] they came, at least we had two great linebackers coming off the edge."
Meyer sent Miller to the short side, and Allen brought him down shy of the marker. Michigan State allowed just 25 yards in the fourth quarter to a Buckeyes team that consistently had eroded its opponents with Miller's shiftiness and Carlos Hyde's power.
"Teams wear down when they play us," Spartans linebacker Max Bullough said. "Shoot, we practice faster and harder than a lot of stuff out here today, not in terms of hitting, but speed between plays."
Michigan State's course correction on defense helped secure the win, but so did an offense that completed an incredible turnaround after becoming a national punch line in September. Cook, the quarterback who wondered if the coaches had lost faith in him following the team's Sept. 21 loss at Notre Dame, claimed title-game MVP honors after passing for 304 yards and three touchdowns.
Cook consistently made plays on the move, spreading the ball to eight different receivers, as Ohio State bottled up the run before giving way late.
"I learned to never give up, to keep pushing no matter what the circumstances are," Cook said. "Score, situation, whatever stage you're on. I really didn't learn anything about our team, because this is the way we've been all year."
Perhaps the rest of us are learning that Michigan State is the next force in the Big Ten. Dantonio has guided the Spartans to 11 or more wins in three of the past four seasons. Michigan State has dominated Michigan under his watch and tormented Wisconsin, as well.
But a championship had been fleeting until Saturday night.
"My dad used to always say, 'Complete your circles,'" Dantonio said, referring to his father, Justin, who passed away days before the 2011 season. "I thought we did that. I never get too excited. I don't ever get too down. I live for my players.
"They made a lifetime moment tonight for all of us."
When it ended, players scrambled for roses to place between their teeth. As they've done after every win this season, they danced to rap songs in the locker room.
"We're doing things that haven't been done here in a while," safety Kurtis Drummond said. "We're trying to go down as never forgotten."
That much is certain. They'll go down as the group that took the Green and White back to Pasadena.
After knocking off No. 2 Ohio State at Lucas Oil Stadium, Michigan State's players could hold their heads high as they clenched roses in their teeth. By building a 17-0 lead early and then mounting a comeback after blowing all of it, the Spartans did Saturday what no one else could do in the past two years: Beat Urban Meyer's Buckeyes.
As a result, Ohio State isn't going to the BCS title game, and the folks in East Lansing, Mich., now have some new friends in Auburn, Ala. Here's a quick look at how the No. 10 Spartans' 34-24 victory went down.
It was over when: Michigan State's Denicos Allen stopped Braxton Miller on a fourth-and-2 run from the Spartans' 39-yard line with 5 minutes, 41 seconds to go. Six plays later, Jeremy Langford broke free for a 26-yard touchdown run, giving Michigan State a 10-point lead with 2:16 left. Michigan State scored the game's first 17 points and the final 17.
Game ball goes to: Connor Cook. Michigan State's sophomore quarterback came into the game with a much lower profile than his Ohio State counterpart. But Cook showed that he's got a bright future, too, along with a poise beyond his years. The offense rested on his right arm most of the game as the Buckeyes shut down the running game for three quarters. Cook completed 10 of his first 13 passes and finished 24-of-40 for 304 yards and three touchdowns. His final score came on a throwback pass to wide-open tight end Josiah Price that gave the Spartans the lead for good.
Stat of the game: We wondered who would win the battle between the nation's top rushing defense and Ohio State's Big Ten-best running attack. The Buckeyes -- and their offensive line -- won that showdown handily, gaining 273 yards on 40 carries against a defense that entered giving up 64.8 yards per game on the ground. Miller and Carlos Hyde each ran for more than 100 yards, doubling the number of 100-yard rushers Michigan State had allowed all season. But the Spartans held Ohio State to just 25 rushing yards in the fourth quarter as they kept the Buckeyes scoreless for the final 14:24.
Unsung hero of the game: Darqueze Dennard came into the game with a huge reputation as a potential All-America cornerback and the leader of the Spartans' "No-Fly Zone" secondary. He backed it up with a couple of big-time pass breakups, including one in the end zone after he was beaten on a route by Devin Smith. Ohio State wasn't able to get much done on Dennard's side of the field.
What it means: Michigan State is going to the Rose Bowl for the first time since 1988, and it will play Stanford in a battle of two of the hardest-hitting defenses in college football. The Spartans are 12-1, won all nine Big Ten games by at least 10 points and should finally get the respect they deserve. Coach Mark Dantonio got a program-defining victory after leading the team to double-digit victories in three of the past four years.
Ohio State will be bitterly disappointed about its missed chance to play Florida State for the national title, and the 24-game winning streak under Meyer is gone. The Big Ten's national title drought now will reach 12 years. All is not lost for the Buckeyes, however. They should still get chosen for an at-large bid to a BCS bowl, probably in either the Sugar Bowl or Orange Bowl.
No. 10 Michigan State and No. 2 Ohio State have kicked off 24 football games this year and walked away a winner 23 times.
So at the risk of seeking information from wrong sources, ESPN.com surveyed coaches who faced the Spartans and Buckeyes for tips on how to succeed against the Big Ten championship game participants.
We granted anonymity to the coaches, position coaches and coordinators from inside and outside the Big Ten, in order to ensure the most candid responses.
One coach who required no such secrecy, as Brian Kelly of Notre Dame offered sound advice when asked how to attack the top-ranked Michigan State defense.
“You cannot win by trying to get three yards here, four yards there,” Kelly said. “You’ve got to get big chunk plays.”
Kelly’s squad, of course, owns the lone victory this season over one of the Big Ten’s top two squads -- a 17-13 win in South Bend, Ind., on Sept. 21.
Below are excerpts from our other conversations about the Spartans.
Check the Big Ten blog later on Thursday for report on Ohio State.
Coach: They've improved as the year went along. The line's jelled and started playing well together. They're a physical style attack. They're going to run at you. Cook has emerged as very consistent. They don't have a big tight end like they did a year ago, Dion Sims, so they don't have the same tight end receiving threat that they typically have, but they've got a corps of receivers that are good players. They're tall kids. They'll catch the ball. They do a good job attacking you and finding your weak spots and exploiting them.”
ESPN.com: How dangerous is running back Jeremy Langford, who’s rushed for 1,210 yards and 17 touchdowns?
Coach: I was impressed with him before and after our game. He's not small, 6-foot, 206. He's learned how to run physically. Sometimes a receiver moving over, you wonder how physical they're going to be running the ball, but he's done a heck of a job for them. I wouldn't put him in Montee Ball's category, but similar size, speed, jukes. He's not as low to the ground as (Carlos) Hyde, but he's a little niftier."
ESPN.com: Ideally, how do you attack Michigan State’s defense?
Coach: It's very difficult. You may get them on one play, but you're not getting them on that same play twice. Their coaches do a great job of making adjustments, and the guys are smart. They're going to crowd the box to take away your run game, so you've got to get to play-action and make double moves off their safeties, or you've got to beat their corners one on one.
ESPN.com: Easier said than done, right, with Darqueze Dennard and Trae Waynes out there at corner?
Coach: They've always had a ton of confidence in their corners. Dennard’s a great one. He knows when he has help and when he doesn't. Yes, they do a phenomenal job of taking away your outside guys with their corners. One thing that's underrated is that they have no problem getting their corners involved in the run game. But if you have real good skill kids at slot receiver or tight end, they have trouble covering those guys up. That's an area where we tried. We just didn't do enough it.
ESPN.com: Why does their scheme work so well?
Coach: They have a way of forcing you into something bad, like they make you try to hit a hole too quickly or rush a throw. For whatever reason, they always seem to be in your face. The best way to describe it, they don't stay blocked very long. It's, by far, the thing I noticed compared to everybody else we played this year. We played, fundamentally, up front, our best game of the year. But still, you'd see a play and think it was a seven-, eight-yard gain, and it went for just three, because they refused to stay blocked. Coach (Pat) Narduzzi has them drinking the Kool-Aid big time, because I think physically, there are better groups, defensively, but nobody plays with their hair on fire quite like them.
ESPN.com: If you were calling plays on Saturday, who would get your attention first on that defense?
Coach: I've got a ton of respect for Max Bullough. I think he's a great player. But the best player on the front seven isn't him or Shilique Calhoun. It's the other defensive end, Marcus Rush. Calhoun reminded us of the kid they had last year, William Gholston. He wants to rush the passer. That's his M.O., so we wanted to run at him, because we felt he wouldn't hold up as well. But part of the reason we ran at Calhoun was because we wanted to stay away from Rush. He can just give you fits.
Let’s finish with a thought from Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz, who saw the Spartans up close on Oct. 5 in Iowa City as MSU beat the Hawkeyes 26-14.
“Michigan State's awfully close to being an undefeated team,” Ferentz said. “It's interesting to me. On a national front, they're so far under the radar from what I see. They're not a bad football team. I don't think people realize how good they are. We'll see on Saturday."
- Ohio State defensive coordinator Luke Fickell was a little defensive about his unit, but everybody involved knows the effort will have to be better in the Big Ten title game.
- The other defensive coordinator in the championship matchup, Michigan State's Pat Narduzzi, is trying to come up with answers for Ohio State's prolific scoring machine.
- The combination of two teams unbeaten in the conference finally gives the Big Ten a big showcase in its marquee game, writes Tom Dienhart.
- Change is coming for Penn State, which appears to be shaking up its coaching staff and will be in the market for two new assistants this offseason.
- Devin Gardner was clearly struggling at the end of his gritty performance on Saturday against Ohio State, and Michigan coach Brady Hoke revealed the injury was "turf toe."
- Nebraska coach Bo Pelini was publicly reprimanded and fined $10,000 for his comments about the officiating after the loss on Friday against Iowa.
- Purdue isn't going to deviate from its plan to rebuild the program, though it clearly isn't happy with an 11-loss season.
- Illinois confirmed that Tim Beckman will return for another season on the sidelines. He'll have a decision to make about defensive coordinator Tim Banks.
- The final home game of the year brought a season-high for Wisconsin, as a fan checked in with a blood-alcohol content sample of .322 and six people were taken to a detox facility.
- An in-depth look at a meeting and the circumstances that led to Kirk Ferentz taking over at Iowa and Bob Stoops heading to Oklahoma.
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.
“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.”
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.
EAST LANSING, Mich. -- Before No. 11 Michigan State could start thinking about next week's Big Ten championship game and possible BCS scenarios, it had to finish the regular season against Minnesota.
That did not come easily. The Spartans scored touchdowns on the first drive of each half Saturday but otherwise managed nothing else on offense. The defense, not surprisingly, saved the day by forcing three turnovers and holding the Gophers to a field goal in 14-3 victory at Spartan Stadium.
"We grinded it out," head coach Mark Dantonio said.
There's just one thing missing during this nearly unprecedented era of success under Dantonio, and it's glaring: a BCS game. The Spartans came close two years ago in Indianapolis, narrowly losing to Wisconsin in the Big Ten championship game. They're determined not to suffer that same fate next week when they play No. 3 Ohio State at Lucas Oil Stadium, with a bid to their first Rose Bowl since the 1987 season on the line.
"I remember looking in the seniors' eyes and seeing the hurt," senior linebacker Denicos Allen said about the 2011 loss. "I saw people cry that I never thought I'd see cry. I know it's a lot of emotion. Not being to the Rose Bowl in so long and having that in our head ... the opportunity is in front of us, and that's definitely motivation for this team."
Michigan State did not play Ohio State in the regular season, but veteran players know what it's like to come up just short against the Buckeyes, too. The Spartans lost 17-16 to the Buckeyes last season at home, setting the stage for a season of heartbreaking defeats. That was Ohio State's first Big Ten victory under Urban Meyer, and the Buckeyes haven't lost a game in two years.
But Michigan State, with the nation's No. 1 defense, believes it can match up well with the Buckeyes, who lead the Big Ten in scoring.
"I feel like we owe them for last year," senior cornerback Darqueze Dennard said. "They got us by an inch. This year, we're going to do whatever we have to do not to let that happen again."
"We lost by a point," safety Isaiah Lewis said. "They're not the same team, and we have to respect them for that. But, whatever, play the game. Don't be intimidated by their record or what people say about them."
Michigan State knows it will have to perform better on offense in Indianapolis than it did on Saturday. After several weeks of consistent improvement, the offense took a step backward against the Gophers, going 0-for-8 on third down. Connor Cook threw an interception in the final seconds of the first half with the team in field-goal position. Co-offensive coordinator Dave Warner said flatly that it "wasn't a championship-level performance."
Defensive coordinator Pat Narduzzi is taking nothing for granted, either, even after his unit created three turnovers and limited Minnesota to 249 yards. Narduzzi told reporters that the defense would go live in practice this week, meaning full tackling. The Spartans didn't do that last year before playing Ohio State and Narduzzi thought it was a mistake.
Dantonio said earlier in the week that Michigan State was playing for a BCS bid on Saturday and that he would campaign for an at-large berth should the Spartans lose in the Big Ten championship game. After the victory, he said the Big Ten deserves a second bid and that his team has done enough to earn one.
"There is always going to be risk in playing a championship game," he said. "If we were to sit back right now and say, 'Hey, let's let somebody else play in that championship game,' I don't think there would be any question we would be in a BCS game. But we're not going to do that. We're going to put all the chips on the table and try to go to the Rose Bowl."
Michigan State's seniors remember getting passed over for the BCS despite double-digit wins in 2010 and 2011. They don't want to let that happen again. There's one sure way to avoid it: finish on top in Indianapolis this time around.
"Walking off the field [two years ago] without the roses in our mouth left a bad taste," Dennard said. "This time, we're going to put everything we have into it and come out with a win."
DJ from Mlps: When reading bowl projections, one thing that always seems to come up is Minnesota having a bad reputation for traveling fan support. In fairness, Minnesota hasn't played on New Year's Day in over 50 years and I believe that Minnesotans would flood any warm destination to a Bowl Game of more prominence. We had the largest fan support in our run to the NCAA Final Four in 1997 (since taken off the books). Can Minnesota get past this reputation issue? Hoping for a Gator Bowl bid if we can knock off Penn St. this weekend!
Adam Rittenberg: DJ, some good points here. Ultimately, it's Norwood Teague's job to sell Minnesota to the bowl reps. I've had multiple bowl people tell me Minnesota travels worse than any fan base in the Big Ten, but part of that could be apathy about the bowls the Gophers have made. There's certainly some enthusiasm around the program right now, and a New Year's Day bowl would only enhance that. I don't think you can compare a Final Four to, say, a Gator Bowl appearance, but Minnesota will have opportunities to sell why it should go to a good bowl.
Matthew from Winston Salem: If you had to pick one coordinator from the B1G to be head coach of your team, who would you pick and why?
Adam Rittenberg: I'd go with MSU defensive coordinator Pat Narduzzi, and not just because I like him personally and would love to cover his teams. Narduzzi would instill the type of defense that could take a bad or middling program to the next level. Recruits would want to play for him, especially on defense. Narduzzi also has matured a little and should handle the head-coaching spotlight better than he would have a few years ago. I also think Wisconsin defensive coordinator Dave Aranda is a future head coach, but Narduzzi is further along in his career.
Mike from Texas: Does Urban win coach of the year? Or is OSU just ineligible for the award?
Adam Rittenberg: Mike, I'm going to write this soon, but if Ohio State runs the table again, Urban absolutely should win the award. It shouldn't just go to a first-year coach or one who improves a middling team. We haven't seen a Big Ten team go undefeated in back-to-back years for a very long time. It's absurd that an Ohio State coach can't seem to win the award, but that should end this year if the Buckeyes win out.
Steven from Madison, Wis.: If the coaching hires were reversed for Purdue and Wisconsin, how do you see this season shaping up for each team? (i.e. is Wisconsin doing better because of better players in the system, or is Anderson a better coach?)
Adam Rittenberg: Interesting question, Steven. Gary Andersen certainly deserves credit for Wisconsin's success, and for keeping the team on track after the Arizona State debacle. But let's be honest here. Andersen inherited a great situation in Madison, one you almost never see for a new coach. Wisconsin has 25 seniors, a defensive superstar in Chris Borland, two exceptional running backs and other standouts. Hazell stepped into a much shakier situation at Purdue. Does that absolve him of blame for a team that might be the worst in recent Big Ten history? No. But the situations are very different and the coach can only do so much.
Mike from Detroit: Rich Rod struggled his first year at UM and the excuse was that Lloyd Carr left the cupboard bare. Rich Rod's teams gradually got better when "his" recruits arrived. Brady Hoke went 11-2 with seemingly all of Rich Rod's recruits. Now UM seems to be getting gradually worse on the field as more of Brady Hoke's recruits come in and Rich Rod's graduate or leave. Does that not seem like there may be a coaching issue at Schembechler Hall?
Adam Rittenberg: There could be, Mike, but let's keep in mind that Hoke is still on track to win more games this season than Rodriguez ever did at Michigan. He has opportunities still to beat some of the Big Ten's better teams, which Rodriguez never did. Is his tenure a failure so far? By his own standards, yes. But three years isn't enough time, especially when the recruiting seemingly has been so strong. Like I said before, if we're still sitting here in 2015 and Michigan isn't winning the Big Ten, a change may be in order.
Thanks again for the questions. Let's do it again next week.
That's true, but it doesn't prevent us from taking a look at some of the crazy stats being put up by Pat Narduzzi's Spartan Dawg defense. Here are some of the national rankings for that unit, culled from both official NCAA stats and ESPN Stats & Info:
Total defense: No. 1
Rush defense: No. 1
Pass efficiency defense: No. 1
Scoring defense: No. 3
Yards per play: No. 1
Yards per rush: No. 1
Passing yards per game: No. 4
Passing yards per attempt: No. 1
First downs per game: No. 1
Third down conversion rate: No. 2
Plays gaining 10 yards or more: No. 1
Plays gaining 20 yards or more: No. 4 (tied)
Percent of plays gaining first down or TD: No. 1
Percent of zero or negative plays: No. 1
Total expected points added by team defense: No. 1
Win probability added by team defense: No. 2
So, yeah, it's hard to get much better than that. We also wondered how this Michigan State defense stacked up to some of the best in recent Big Ten history. We reviewed the official Big Ten defensive statistics, which detail the leaders in key categories since 1985, to find out:
2013 Michigan State: 210.2 yards per game
That figure would be the lowest in the Big Ten since 1985 if it held for the entire season. Only three teams in that span have allowed less than 235 yards per game over a full season: 1997 Michigan (222.8), 1987 Michigan State (225.6) and 2007 Ohio State (233). The '02 Buckeyes gave up 320.9 yards per game.
2013 Michigan State: 43.4 yards per game
The Spartans' current number would tie the 2006 Michigan team for the lowest number since 1985. No other team in that span has held teams to under 60 rushing yards per game. Dantonio's 2002 Buckeyes allowed 77.7 rushing yards per game.
Pass efficiency defense
2013 Michigan State: 90.29 rating
The Spartans' current pace would be the best in the Big Ten since 2009 Iowa (90.0). Only four teams since 1985 have posted a 90 or lower pass efficiency defense rating, led by 1998 Michigan's 49.9.
2013 Michigan State: 11.6 ppg
The last Big Ten team to hold opponents under 12 points per game for an entire season was Wisconsin in 1998 (11.9 ppg). The Spartans' current number would be the lowest in the league since the 1996 Ohio State defense yielded 10.9 ppg. The 1985 Michigan Wolverines gave up just 6.8 ppg, while the '97 Wolverines allowed only 9.5. The '02 Buckeyes surrendered 13.1 ppg.
Numbers can be twisted and turned in a lot of different ways. But however you want to look at this 2013 Michigan State defense, it's hard to deny that the unit is doing some historic things.
College football coaches are the kings of qualifying statements, hesitant to let the evidence stand on its own without mentioning mistakes or the room for improvement.
Of the key national stories in Week 10 -- Florida State's latest destruction of a top-10 foe, Nebraska's Hail Mary, the bad blood between Georgia and Florida -- arguably nothing resonated more than Michigan State's defense.
Narduzzi, who has orchestrated a top-10 defense for the past three seasons, was asked Saturday whether the unit -- ranked No. 1 nationally in total defense (210.2 ypg), rush defense (43.4 ppg) and pass efficiency defense (90.3 rating) and third in scoring defense (11.6 ppg) -- is exceeding his expectations.
"There's no question," he said. "You never think you're going to be that good."
Dantonio used the word dominant several times, noting that Michigan State hasn't allowed a touchdown in its past three games.
"In modern-day football, you just don't see that very often," he said.
Indeed, this is unique. Michigan State's defense has been among the nation's best the past two seasons, finishing in the top-10 in points allowed, yards allowed and rushing yards allowed. The self-titled Spartan Dawgs have gained respect both in the Big Ten and nationally.
They were near the top, but not quite at the top. A step separated MSU between great and elite, one many programs struggle to take.
In 2012, Michigan State created a blueprint for its defense, defining the Spartan Dawgs as: "An Elite Group United to Wreak Havoc, Instill Fear and Dominate the Country." The Spartans are reflecting their mantra this season.
How has it happened? Three factors have contributed.
1. An elite pass rusher and more overall pressure
Lost amid all the impressive numbers the Spartan defense put up last season is a rather ugly one: 20 sacks. Michigan State tied for 93rd nationally in sacks per game, and only Iowa (13) recorded fewer sacks than the Spartans among Big Ten teams.
MSU didn't get the season it expected out of end William Gholston, who had 4.5 sacks, and no other defensive lineman had more than two. But the pass rush picked up toward the end of the season, as the Spartans recorded 14 sacks in their final five contests.
It has continued this fall, as the Spartans already have 16 sacks after Saturday's surge. Sophomore Shilique Calhoun leads the Big Ten with 6.5 sacks, providing a fearsome presence on the edge. Linebacker Denicos Allen, an effective blitzer who finished second in the Big Ten in sacks with 11 in 2011, has recaptured his former form. Allen recorded two sacks against Michigan and earned national defensive player of the week honors, in addition to becoming the fourth Spartan this season to earn Big Ten defensive player of the week honors.
"That's what we want to do, attack 'em for four quarters," Narduzzi said.
Five MSU players have multiple sacks this season, including linemen Marcus Rush and Tyler Hoover. The swarm looks a lot more like 2011, when the Spartans led the Big Ten and finished seventh nationally in sacks.
"We're a pressure team, but we're getting better pass rush collectively from four guys," Dantonio said.
2. Takeaways (especially takeaways for points)
Michigan State stifled opposing offenses in 2012, but it didn't take away the ball at an exceptional rate. The Spartans had 20 takeaways, a more respectable number than their sacks total but one that still ranked in the middle of the Big Ten. Although seven different players had interceptions and nine different players recovered a fumble, none went on to score touchdowns. Michigan State's only defensive score came on a Gholston safety against Northwestern.
The opportunistic play is back this fall, as Michigan State already has 16 takeaways, including a Darqueze Dennard interception Saturday that essentially sealed the win. MSU leads the nation with five defensive touchdowns, three by Calhoun (two fumble, one interception).
Last year, statistically, we were very, very good, and not a lot of people scored on us. But we didn't get the turnovers that we had the previous year, and we didn't get the sacks. We're getting both those aspects more this year.
-- Michigan State coach Mark Dantonio
It's a lot like the 2011 defense, which had four pick-sixes.
"Last year, statistically, we were very, very good, and not a lot of people scored on us," Dantonio said. "But we didn't get the turnovers that we had the previous year, and we didn't get the sacks. We're getting both those aspects more this year.
"Those are the two things we worked on that we knew we needed to improve on. We're getting that production."
3. Embracing excellence
Michigan State's ascent from a great defense to an elite one isn't simply statistical. It's also cultural.
The Spartans aren't becoming a top-10 defense. They've already been one for several years. Seniors like linebacker Max Bullough, Allen, Dennard, Hoover, safety Isaiah Lewis and nose tackle Micajah Reynolds understand the expectations for the unit. Younger players like sophomore cornerback Trae Waynes, sophomore tackles Mark Scarpinato and Damon Knox, and sophomore linebacker Ed Davis, who had 2.5 sacks against Michigan, have been indoctrinated into the system.
"We've grown," Dantonio said. "We've been good for three years: 2010 we were very good as well, '11, '12. Now those guys who were freshmen in 2010 or 2011 redshirt freshman, 2012, they're now growing up and they're three years into the system, so they're able to adjust. We've got a good pass rush, we're not afraid to pressure, we've got a good scheme, but it's the players who make plays."
The Spartans have playmakers in all three units. When Dantonio looks at the defense as currently constructed, he wouldn't trade any of his pieces.
"We've got a certain amount of talent out there," Dantonio said, "but when you tack on confidence to that talent level, and the belief in the system, and the belief in each other, great things are possible."
Elite things, too. That's what Michigan State's defense has become in 2013.
The big debate in these rankings concerns the No. 2 spot, which Wisconsin has occupied for several weeks. The Badgers handled Iowa on the road and delivered a salty defensive performance even without superstar linebacker Chris Borland. Michigan State smothered Michigan, complementing a dominant defense with timely passes from Connor Cook. Both teams have won at Iowa and at Illinois. Michigan State has the best win between the bunch but has played the easier schedule.
For now, we're keeping Wisconsin at No. 2. We realize we're in the minority there, but Wisconsin hasn't done much to move down since the Northwestern game. It's too bad the Badgers and Spartans can't play this season to decide the second spot.
Elsewhere, Nebraska avoids another drop thanks to its Hail Mary against sad-sack Northwestern. We debated whether to move Minnesota higher, and we will if the Gophers keep winning. Iowa falls down a few spots, and the bottom of the rankings remains unchanged.
Here's one last look at the Week 9 rankings.
Now, the new rundown ...
1. Ohio State (9-0, 5-0 Big Ten; last week: 1): Ross-Ade Stadium is no longer a graveyard for the Buckeyes, who buried Purdue in a matter of minutes Saturday. Ohio State scored 28 first-quarter points and 42 in the first half, as the tight ends got involved, quarterbacks Braxton Miller and Kenny Guiton both had jump-pass touchdowns and the defense blanked Purdue. Whether style points matter, Ohio State is finally getting them. The Buckeyes are off this week before visiting Illinois on Nov. 16.
2. Wisconsin (6-2, 4-1; last week: 2): The offense struggled and top defender Borland watched from the sideline with a hamstring injury, but Wisconsin found a way to beat Iowa. Marcus Trotter was fabulous filling in for Borland, as the Badgers' defense repeatedly turned Iowa away in plus territory. Running back James White came alive late as Wisconsin pulled away. The Badgers will need a stronger performance this week as they step out of league play against a good BYU squad.
3. Michigan State (8-1, 5-0; last week: 3): Not only did the Spartans reclaim their superiority against in-state rival Michigan, but they looked like a worthy competitor for Ohio State in a potential Big Ten championship game matchup. If Nebraska falls this week at Michigan, MSU would have a two-game lead on the rest of the division with three weeks to go. An elite defense had its best performance under Pat Narduzzi, as end Shilique Calhoun and linebackers Denicos Allen and Ed Davis combined for seven sacks and 8.5 tackles for loss. Cook made some impressive throws as the Spartans pounded Michigan. They'll have some extra time to celebrate during an open week before visiting Nebraska on Nov. 16.
4. Nebraska (6-2, 3-1; last week: 7): One play makes all the difference between another Power Rankings drop for Big Red and a three-spot gain. Nebraska had defensive problems early and turnover problems late against Northwestern, but the Huskers never gave up and won a game on a Hail Mary to Jordan Westerkamp for the first time in team history. Credit running back Ameer Abdullah for keeping a potentially splintering team together. The young defense also shut down Northwestern's offense in the second half. Nebraska must beat Michigan on the road this week to stay in the Legends Division race.
5. Michigan (6-2, 2-2; last week: 4): That Notre Dame win feels like years ago as Michigan's warts were exposed in Saturday's loss at Michigan State. The Wolverines are either too young or simply not tough enough, as they were pushed around the field at Spartan Stadium. Michigan had a program-low rushing total (minus-48 yards) and couldn't protect quarterback Devin Gardner. The program's Big Ten championship drought almost certainly will reach nine years, and it's fair to question where things are really headed under third-year coach Brady Hoke. At least Michigan returns home, where it has never lost under Hoke, to face Nebraska this week.
6. Minnesota (7-2, 3-2; last week: 6): The Minnesota mojo continues, thanks in large part to an inexcusable crunch-time blunder by Indiana. Minnesota blew a 22-point third-quarter lead but rallied behind Philip Nelson, who established himself as the team's offensive leader with 298 pass yards and four touchdowns. It was a rough second half for the defense, but linebacker Aaron Hill came up with the decisive play late as the Gophers got out of Bloomington with their third consecutive league win. Minnesota is a factor in the Legends Division race but must keep winning this week against Penn State.
7. Iowa (5-4, 2-3; last week: 5): Sure, the Hawkeyes are improved this season, but some of the same maddening offensive traits remain, like being unable to finish drives. Iowa should have been up at halftime rather than down 7-6 to Wisconsin, and although quarterback Jake Rudock's injury impacted the game, the Hawkeyes' second-half struggles on offense are nothing new. The defense is good enough to get Iowa a few more wins, but can the offense start scoring? Iowa visits Purdue this week.
8. Penn State (5-3, 2-2; last week: 8): It isn't always pretty with Penn State, but the Lions don't quit, especially on their home field. Freshman quarterback Christian Hackenberg once again rallied his team from a late deficit and stepped up in overtime as Penn State avoided what would have been a bad loss to Illinois. Bill Belton established himself as the team's top running back with 201 yards and a touchdown. The defense remains far too vulnerable to big passing plays. Penn State will need to be better on both sides of the ball this week as it visits surging Minnesota.
9. Indiana (3-5, 1-3; last week: 9): Coach Kevin Wilson's crew doesn't quit, but the Hoosiers still don't know how to win. They were 9 yards away from completing a huge second-half comeback against Minnesota and moving a step closer to bowl eligibility. At worst, they were in position to send the game to overtime. Instead, everything fell apart on a dropped backward pass to Tevin Coleman, who had a big game (108 rush yards, TD). The quarterback race took another turn with Nate Sudfeld outplaying Tre Roberson, and the defense had a wildly inconsistent performance. Indiana hosts Illinois this week but will need a road win at Ohio State or Wisconsin to become bowl eligible.
10. Northwestern (4-5, 0-5; last week: 10): The former Cardiac Cats are only giving their fans heartache at this point as they've forgotten how to perform in the clutch. Northwestern had another golden opportunity for a road win, but let it slip away when it couldn't finish off Nebraska on either side of the ball, leading to the Hail Mary touchdown to Jordan Westerkamp. Injuries continue to mount in a snakebitten season for the Wildcats, who likely won't make a bowl. Northwestern has an off week to regroup before hosting Michigan on Nov. 16.
11. Illinois (3-5, 0-4; last week: 11): The Big Ten losing streak has reached 18 games, and arguably no defeat stung more than Saturday's at Penn State. Illinois wasted opportunities early, took the lead late and still couldn't hold on for a victory. Tim Beckman's team performed better than expected and can take some positives from its performance in Happy Valley, but there's still too much inconsistency on both sides of the ball, as the defense allowed 250 rush yards. Illinois visits Indiana this week.
12. Purdue (1-7, 0-4; last week: 12): The misery continues for Darrell Hazell's crew, which is on its way to its worst season since 1993 (1-10) and might be one of the worst squads in recent Big Ten memory. Young quarterback Danny Etling had another rough outing as Purdue never challenged Ohio State and had no answers for the Buckeyes' offense. Purdue has been shut out in consecutive games and has scored just 17 points in four Big Ten contests. The remaining schedule is a little more favorable, but Purdue has to show something positive by season's end.
EAST LANSING, Mich. -- The debate about Ohio State hasn't been where the Buckeyes will spend their postseason, but when.
For months, Ohio State has been pegged for Pasadena, Calif. Its dominant performances in recent weeks, combined with what seems to be a weak league, only validate the belief. The only drama is whether Urban Meyer's crew will be there Jan. 1 for the 100th Rose Bowl Game or Jan. 6 for a game with greater significance, the BCS national championship.
The Buckeyes' path to Pasadena, with Wisconsin in the rear-view mirror, has seemed as wide and unobstructed as a tarmac in the dead of night. A Big Ten title was a formality.
But there is something standing in Ohio State's way. A big, green wall -- a green monster, if you will.
Michigan State is on a collision course with Ohio State and likely will face the Buckeyes on Dec. 7 at the Big Ten championship game. And as Michigan found out Saturday afternoon, colliding with the Spartans and their defense isn't pretty.
Ohio State might be the Big Ten's best team, but the league's best unit belongs to Michigan State, which smashed Michigan 29-6 at Spartan Stadium.
"A dominant day by our defense," coach Mark Dantonio added.
Complete is holding Michigan to the lowest net rushing total (minus-48) in team history. Dominant is holding Michigan to its lowest points total in the series since a 34-0 shutout in 1967. Complete is recording seven sacks, 11 tackles for loss, a forced fumble and an interception. Dominant is allowing 2.8 yards per play, 12 first downs and 168 total yards.
Michigan came into the game averaging 6.4 yards per play, 19.8 first downs and 446.4 yards, not to mention 42.4 points.
"You never think you're going to be that good," coordinator Pat Narduzzi said.
Michigan talked during the week about being bullied in its last trip here, when Michigan State racked up six personal fouls in a 28-14 victory. The Spartans were much more composed Saturday, committing only one personal foul, on special teams in the closing seconds.
But they pushed around Michigan all afternoon.
"We basically lived in the backfield," cornerback Darqueze Dennard said.
Linebackers Denicos Allen and Ed Davis, filling in for Jairus Jones in the nickel package, combined for 4.5 sacks and 5.5 tackles for loss. Defensive end Shilique Calhoun did his best Bane impression and tormented Wolverines quarterback Devin Gardner, recording 2.5 sacks and three tackles for loss.
Calhoun, who now leads the Big Ten with 6.5 sacks, gives Michigan State the elite pass rusher it has lacked the past few seasons.
"Four-man pressure, it helps you out when you've got a guy who can make something happen," Narduzzi said. "Julian Peterson's in the locker room afterward, and that's the kind of guy [Calhoun] looks like. He's a great player."
The defense's signature stretch in a signature performance came late in the third quarter, when Michigan found a sliver of hope following a Raymon Taylor interception return to the Spartans 41-yard line.
First down: Calhoun and safety Isaiah Lewis drop Gardner for a 5-yard loss.
Second down: Allen sacks Gardner.
Third down: Allen and Davis sack Gardner.
Narduzzi noted that sudden-change plays, such as the interception, can spark panic. His defense relishes them.
"They think they have the advantage; they think they're going to score," Bullough said. "It's a momentum change for them. So if we go out there and stuff them, and we keep 'em out of even scoring a field goal, it's double: It takes away theirs and it gives us momentum.
"It's an opportunity for us to change the game."
Michigan State has changed the game in the Big Ten. The Spartans don't have the Legends division title locked up, as Nebraska is just a game back and Minnesota isn't out of it. But if Michigan beats Nebraska in Ann Arbor next week, when the Spartans are off, MSU will be two games clear of everyone else in the division with three to play.
Ohio State-Michigan State would be good for the Big Ten, which desperately needs some sizzle in its signature event.
The Buckeyes offense is on fire behind quarterback Braxton Miller and a bruising offensive line. The Spartans defense is surging behind Calhoun, Allen, Bullough, Dennard and others.
"You want a shot at the best," Bullough said. "If you want to be considered the best, you've got to perform and play against the best in those moments, and Ohio State seems to be the team that's doing that.
"If we have that opportunity, we'll take it head on."
One team unlikely to appear in Indy is Michigan, which, by its own championship-or-bust standards, seems headed for another failed season. The Wolverines' young offensive line was no match for Michigan State, and Gardner's season of extremes took another dip.
Michigan still gets a shot at Ohio State, but its inability to beat Michigan State, which has won five of the teams' past six meetings, likely will extend its Big Ten title drought to a staggering nine seasons.
"They've got a good football team," Narduzzi said, "but we've got a great football team."
Chants of "little sister" rained down in the closing minutes, a reference to the "little brother" comments made by Michigan running back Fitzgerald Toussaint during the week. But Michigan State has moved beyond the name-calling.
"Call us little brother, big brother," Allen said, "but when it's on the field, we show who's the big brother and who's the little brother."
Call Michigan State the biggest threat to Ohio State. Beating Michigan isn't new for the Spartans under Dantonio. Neither is winning the division.
There's one item left: a Rose Bowl appearance.
"We have confidence right now," Dantonio said. "As long as we handle success, we'll be just fine."
Dennard was asked afterward about a Gatorade-dumping attempt on Dantonio, but corrected the reporter, saying Narduzzi was the intended target.
"We're saving one for Coach D," he said. "Somewhere in Cali."
Are the Buckeyes listening? They should be.
- Dual-threat quarterbacks have had some success against the Michigan State defense. So, might Michigan have an answer for the Spartans with Devin Gardner taking the snaps on Saturday?
- The gigs haven't all been glamorous for Pat Narduzzi, but all the experiences for the Michigan State defensive coordinator are building to the moment when he runs his own program.
- Wisconsin running back James White has only been knocked out of one game in his career, and he's got some unfinished business to handle this weekend at Iowa.
- The Iowa defensive ends might not fit the traditional mold, but their approach is working just fine up front for a hard-nosed unit.
- Nebraska is continuing to search for answers at linebacker, with the ability to bounce back being put to the test in the middle of the defense.
- Northwestern has righted its ship before with a momentum-swinging road win against the Huskers, and it's leaning on that memory from two years ago as it tries to stop its slide this weekend.
- Penn State is trying to figure out exactly what has gone wrong on defense lately, and simplifying the approach is the first step in working to get it corrected.
- Preparing for an offensive "juggernaut," Jerry Kill wanted defensive coordinator Tracy Claeys to have more time to focus on Indiana than worrying about head-coaching responsibilities.
- Illinois senior receiver Ryan Lankford's career is over after undergoing surgery on his injured shoulder, but he's still aiming to have an impact on the sideline for the final month of the regular season.
- Bradley Roby wiped the slate clean after a rocky first half of the season, and the fresh start clearly paid off for the Ohio State cornerback last week in an outstanding effort against Penn State.
- Braxton Miller had a couple things to work on during the bye week, starting with getting his knee fully healthy and shoring up his ball security as the Ohio State quarterback prepared for Iowa.
- The thrilling win Christian Hackenberg helped Penn State pull off last weekend might be an early chapter in his book, but it's one that won't be skimmed over down the line.
- Iowa offensive lineman Andrew Donnal, born a fan of the Buckeyes, has had to do some redecorating in the family home and is looking to make a successful return to the Horseshoe.
- Just like his mother, Michigan State defensive coordinator Pat Narduzzi can still see room for his elite defense to improve.
- Michigan is designing mismatches for Devin Funchess in a new wide receiver/tight end hybrid role, and it has paid off with three touchdowns in the last two weeks.
- Nebraska picked up a couple of impressive wins between its bye weeks, and suddenly things are starting to look more optimistic for its beleaguered defense.
- After struggling to find much consistency on the ground over the last couple of games, Minnesota is expecting a bit more breathing room for its rushing attack against Northwestern.
- The Illinois secondary is largely coming up empty in the interception department, and the defensive line isn't generating many sacks. Both units rank last in the country in those statistical categories and are trying to climb out of the cellar.
- Now 60 years in the past, Purdue's memorable upset of top-ranked Michigan State still remains clear in the minds of a few who witnessed it.
- Wisconsin right tackle Rob Havenstein can pop in film of his play last season for reminders of how far he has come as a blocker. The next step is becoming a "dominant force."
At least not unless your idea of art involves dust clouds and dented helmets. There isn't much fancy about how either of these teams approach the game. They just go right after one another.
"It's a man's game when you play Iowa," Michigan State linebacker Max Bullough said. "That's what you're in for."
And while we likely won't be in for an aesthetically pleasing offensive display, we can often count on a highly competitive game. The Spartans and Hawkeyes don't play for a trophy, and this isn't a game many people think about when discussing Big Ten rivalries. But few series have been as consistently close.
Since Mark Dantonio became head coach at Michigan State, four of the six games have been decided by seven points or less. The first one, in 2007, went to overtime, and last year's took double overtime before Iowa pulled out a 19-16 win in East Lansing.
"They've been very close games, and what separates those two teams game to game has been the inches," Dantonio said. "It's the details, the little things that either go your way or they don't. We've got to find those inches, and we've got to find them at Iowa City this year."
Razor-thin margins between Iowa and Michigan State aren't a new phenomenon. The Hawkeyes lead the all-time series 23-19-2. Iowa was Michigan State's Big Ten opener every year between 1985 and 1990. Those six games were decided by a total of 20 points.
"Not to sound like Pop Warner, but I can go back to the '80s and think about how many just really close games we had then," Iowa head coach Kirk Ferentz said. "It seems like it's been more of the same since Mark came back to Michigan State.
"I don't know if I can tell you why that is, but we've had some fantastic games. And in close games like that, it usually does come back to always a handful of things that take place that really impact the game. My guess is we're probably looking at another one of those games this week."
One reason the games have usually gone down to the wire might be the similarity in styles.
Dantonio said that when he took over the Spartans, he looked to Iowa as the model to emulate.
"I said, there's a program we felt was doing it the right way, doing it with toughness," he said. "And we wanted to take some of the things that they did and implement those aspects into our program. Not necessarily things conceptually, but the mentality."
Iowa also has some ties to Michigan State, particularly on the defensive side. Current defensive coordinator Phil Parker was an All-Big Ten defensive back for the Spartans and later an assistant under George Perles. His predecessor at Iowa, Norm Parker (no relation), coached from 1983-94 in East Lansing and served as Perles' defensive coordinator.
The schemes and philosophies of both teams have clear differences. The Hawkeyes don't blitz much on defense while the Spartans are very aggressive under coordinator Pat Narduzzi. Both have pro style offenses, but Iowa likes to run the ball more than the Spartans do. But they both share a common trait.
"It's definitely true to say they play physical," Hawkeyes senior linebacker James Morris said of Michigan State. "That's how they beat people. They try to grind it out and wear you down. That's something similar to what we try to do here at Iowa."
And that can make for some less than artistic games. Last year in East Lansing, each team scored only one touchdown, and Iowa had to ride workhorse back Mark Weisman down the field for a score with 55 seconds left to force overtime. Weisman had 116 of the Hawkeyes' 123 rushing yards.
A year later, Iowa is still pounding it on the ground with Weisman but has a more consistent offensive line and a quarterback in Jake Rudock who can make plays on the move. Michigan State's continued offensive struggles are well documented, but Dantonio's team did have a bye week to tinker with things and get quarterback Connor Cook more comfortable.
We will see strength versus strength. Iowa is eighth nationally in rushing yards, having run for more than 200 yards in each game this season. Michigan State ranks second in the FBS in rushing yards allowed per game at 57.25.
Still, this game likely will boil down to who hits the hardest, as it almost always does.
"It's a test of the wills when you play these games," Bullough said. "I think the team that's won the line of scrimmage is the team that's been able to win the past few years."
That might not equal a conventionally pretty game on Saturday, but it should be an old school Big Ten beauty.
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To the inbox ...
Eric from Los Angeles writes: Hi Adam, love the blog. Is this the most open you have ever seen the Big Ten? Call me crazy, but I'm not completely sold on OSU this year. I could see up to 6 teams with a legit chance of winning the Big Ten Championship. OSU, Nebraska, Wisconsin, Michigan State, Michigan, Northwestern. Thoughts?
Adam Rittenberg: Eric, I'll have a better answer for you in two weeks, as Ohio State will have played both Wisconsin and Northwestern. If the Buckeyes blow out both the Badgers and Wildcats, it's hard not to consider them the clear-cut favorite to win the league, as we all thought entering the season. If Ohio State loses one of the next two games, the race should be pretty wide open. Every Big Ten team has some type of flaw, but Ohio State could have fewer than the others, as well as more talent. We'll soon find out.
Georgie from Augusta, Ga., writes: Adam, As a nuclear engineer, and I appreciate how close your name is to "Atom". As much as I am completely against paying the student-athletes, do you think it might be prudent to pay student-athletes for revenue generating sports a flat salary of, let's say, $9.00 an hour for practice and game time? That way, the student-athletes get a bit of money, and the school has a way to keep a cap on the amount they are paying the players. Using this method, the football players would cost the school $1,080,000 (on top of all the other money spent on them) assuming the student-athletes put in 25 hours of 'work' a week, there are 120 players on the football team, and practice 40 weeks of the year. Your thoughts?
Rittenberg: Maybe I'll change my name to Atom. Sounds cooler. The problem with your plan is limiting the salaries only to athletes who play revenue-generating sports. Leagues would open themselves up to Title IX issues, potential lawsuits from athletes who play other sports, etc. Those athletes, by the way, put in a lot of time, too. It's why if and when scholarship values increase, it will be for all full-scholarship athletes. The leagues clearly can afford this and the Big Ten has been on board with it for a few years.
Brian from Raleigh, N.C., writes: On Jim Delany's comments on paying student athletes, isn't there something inconsistent about heralding a century-old student-athlete model, and simultaneously wielding the Big Ten conference as a money-making machine? He's saying student-athletes shouldn't be able to make money off of football or even control their own images after graduation, but the Big Ten conference and schools can make as much money off the athletes as the market will support. Isn't there something morally shaky about that argument? I'm all for an NFL D-league that offers a for-pay alternative to talented athletes. That seems to solve a lot of problems, and take a lot of pressure off academic institutions. But so long as the schools and major conferences are enjoying unprecedented revenue from the Big Ten Network and other TV deals, there are going to be students who feel that they have earned some portion of that revenue. If Delany isn't willing to negotiate on that point, he needs to be prepared to give up his cable network, give up the league's exposure in other sports media, and impose coaching salary caps and facilities spending caps to keep Big Ten athletics affordable. The alternative-- "We can make as much money off of you as we want but you have to live out the ideals of student athletics"-- is incredibly disgusting and hypocritical.
Rittenberg: Some good points, Brian. Delany's response would be that there were great college players in the 1940s, the 1950s, the 1960s and so on, just like there are great players today. They come and go. The reason the Big Ten makes money is because of its brand and the brands it represents. The platform is the reason revenues are going up, not because players are so much better now than they were 15 years ago. He would say the Big Ten gets rich because of what Big Ten football means, because of what Big Ten football has created over the years. If you want to be a part of this platform, you have to agree to the collegial model. If you want to go pro, you can. He also is willing to negotiate on the value of scholarships, but he doesn't want a system with agents and contracts and endorsements. It would get out of hand.
Cory from Dallas writes: How do athletes and their families not realize how much they are actually getting? Everyone is constantly complaining about increased tuition and costs associated with school and these athletes don't have to worry about that but they are still complaining. I am all for giving kids getting access to the school supplies and textbooks they need but handing a kid extra money will only lead to more problems. The amount of benefit these kids are obtaining by getting a scholarship is huge and I just don't understand how they don't see that. I wish I didn't have school loans to pay for now but I chose to walk onto a team because I wanted to play a sport. If a kid wants to get paid that bad go straight to the pros, find a semi-pro league or get a trainer. Going to college on a scholarship means a free education, free room and board, free access to a trainer and high end weight room, the chance to play in front of thousands and also a laundry list of other benefits (which includes getting some of their laundry done for them). People need a reality check.
Rittenberg: Cory, thanks for your perspective. I think the value of a scholarship can go a bit further, and by increasing it across the board for every full-scholarship athlete, male or female, you satisfy Title IX and prevent further fairness issues. The big, rich conferences can do this and shouldn't be held back by the smaller, poorer ones. There are some costs currently not covered that should be, to help out the athletes and their families. But beyond that, I don't see a pay-for-play system being feasible.
Brian from Atlanta writes: Adam, since (Barry) Alvarez arrived at WI, OSU is 12-6-1 against WI but only 12-10-1 against MI. In addition, OSU is 13-7 against PSU. WI has been the 3rd biggest threat to OSU over that period. There have been years when WI was the bigger threat, but overall it is still clearly MI.
Rittenberg: Some good numbers to present, Brian. If you're going solely by head-to-head, Penn State is probably the biggest threat to Ohio State, as the Lions have performed better against the Buckeyes in recent years than either Michigan or Wisconsin. But if you go by conference titles won, Wisconsin clearly has been the biggest threat in recent years. The Badgers have won or shared three consecutive Big Ten titles and boast five titles since 1998. In the same span, Michigan has won or shared four titles and none since 2004. Penn State has only two titles (both vacated). I think you have to take both factors -- head-to-head, overall league titles won -- when sizing up which team is Ohio State's biggest threat.
John from Las Vegas writes: One of the bright spots of the Husker Defense this year has been SJB's knack for intercepting the football. His size (ESPN has him listed at 6'3" and 220lbs) is abnormal for a corner…do you foresee him continuing his success in Big Ten play? Or even projecting to the NFL like Richard Sherman in Seattle?
Rittenberg: John, you're absolutely right that Stanley Jean-Baptiste has been a bright spot for a mostly porous Nebraska defense this season. The former wide receiver is tied for the national lead with four interceptions. Although I still put SJB a notch below Bradley Roby and Darqueze Dennard in the ranks of Big Ten cornerbacks, his stock undoubtedly is on the rise. I think he'll continue to make plays during the Big Ten season, although quarterbacks might think twice about challenging him. I like the Sherman size comparison and will see if Jean-Baptiste looks to Sherman as a model for getting to the next level.
Dave from Whitehall, Mich., writes: My question is the OC Position at Michigan State. Given 2 facts - 1) MSU has floundered offensively since his departure and 2) no real progress or success for Treadwell as a head coach, is it out of the question to bring him back as "THE" OC at MSU? Maybe that would keep Narduzzi around until MD retires and be promoted to the head coaching job in E Lansing?
Rittenberg: Dave, don't you think Michigan State's offense downturn has more to do with Kirk Cousins than Don Treadwell? Nothing against Treadwell, but the Spartans were fine offensively in 2011 when Cousins led them to the Big Ten championship game. I thought Treadwell did some good things at MSU, especially after Mark Dantonio had his health scare in 2010. But I've always felt Michigan State's offensive issues go back to a middling line and the inability to develop enough perimeter weapons. I believe going to the spread offense would help Michigan State close the talent gap in some areas. Treadwell could be looking for a new job if things don't turn around fast at Miami, but I'd be surprised if Michigan State brings him back. And I don't think Treadwell's presence has any bearing on whether Narduzzi stays or goes. Narduzzi wants to be a head coach and should get an opportunity soon.
Rob from Morristown, N.J., writes: Adam, in a recent article regarding Penn State's sanctions reduction, there was mention that the B1G Conference in conjunction with Sen. Mitchell proposed to the NCAA to reduce the sanctions, per Sen. Mitchell's initial recommendations. If that is true, at what point might the B1G decide to lift their own ban on PSU from being eligible to play for the Conference Championship? If the NCAA decides, down the road, to reduce the post season sanctions, is that the key driver for the B1G conference following suit and reducing the ban on playing in the Conference Championship game. Seems to me the conference reacted to follow the NCAA's punishment, now that the B1G may have been at the forefront of helping to reduce the sanctions, might they be proactive in reducing the number of years PSU is banned from playing in the conference championship game, without waiting on the NCAA to decide down the road if they will allow PSU to play in bowl games?
Rittenberg: The Big Ten championship penalty is directly tied to the postseason ban penalty, Rob. When listing the requirements to appear in its first championship game in 2011, the Big Ten noted that any team ineligible for bowls also could not appear in its title game. So once the NCAA ends the bowl ban, the Big Ten will allow Penn State to play for a league championship. It's not a matter of being proactive. The Big Ten doesn't want to see its league champion end its season in Indianapolis because of a larger postseason ban. It would look horrible. What might be more interesting to watch is whether the Big Ten starts giving Penn State its bowl revenue share a little earlier. But right now the Big Ten is following the NCAA's lead on this.