- Adam Rittenberg, ESPN Staff Writer
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These days, you always hear about the offensive innovation in college football. There are more snaps taken, more yards gained, more points scored and more creativity from the men calling the plays.
But there's plenty of defensive innovation, too, especially as coaches try to combat the up-tempo spread offenses they often face. I reached out to defensive coaches around the country to discuss innovation, and among those who weighed in was Michigan State defensive coordinator Pat Narduzzi.
Michigan State sets the standard for defense in the Big Ten these days. The Spartans are the first team since since at least 1985 to lead the Big Ten in both total defense and rushing defense for three consecutive seasons.
MSU has finished in the top six nationally in fewest yards allowed for three consecutive seasons. Last year's defense was the only FBS unit to finish in the top three in the four major statistical categories: total defense (No. 2), scoring defense (No. 3), rushing defense (No. 2) and pass defense (No. 3). MSU led the nation in pass defense efficiency and fewest yards per play, and finished second in opponent third-down conversions.
The Spartans undoubtedly have had star players -- cornerback Darqueze Dennard, linebackers Max Bullough and Denicos Allen, linemen Shilique Calhoun and William Gholston, to name a few. But according to Narduzzi, their scheme also sets them apart.
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"I don't think there's a team in the country that does what we do," Narduzzi said. "We're more cutting edge [with] zone pressure. We're cutting edge with how we play our quarters [Cover 4] coverage. It's adapted to if you play Stanford, a two-back, two-tight end team, or an empty team. We do a lot of things people don't do and to be honest, people are trying to copycat it all over the country."
Narduzzi added that one Big Ten defensive coordinator called him during bowl practice about MSU's success with zone blitzes.
"He said, 'I love it. I don't know how the f--- you guys do it, but I love it,'" Narduzzi recalled. "They think it's easy and then they try to do it and they screw it up. It's some different stuff."
Don't worry, MSU fans: Although Narduzzi and his staff will meet with other coaches at clinics and discuss base coverages, the zone blitz concepts are off limits.
Narduzzi also talked how the defense often switches its approach after the snap. Offenses want to see "statues," he said -- defenses sitting in base coverages -- and while MSU sometimes looks basic, things get complex in a hurry.
Although Iowa isn't a hurry-up offense, the Hawkeyes tried to "throw a fastball at us," Narduzzi said, in last year's game at Kinnick Stadium. It didn't work out as MSU switched its coverage and Dennard intercepted Jake Rudock's pass.
"We've got smart kids and we've got good coaches and we work at what we do," Narduzzi said. "Post-snap we're going to have something different coming at you."
Narduzzi recalled about how when he first joined Mark Dantonio's staff at Cincinnati, he had to convince Dantonio, who had been Ohio State's defensive coordinator, to buy into a speed-based approach. Dantonio wanted sturdy linebackers and tall cornerbacks, probably because he could get them at a program like Ohio State.
"It was like, 'God, coach, we're not doing that,'" said Narduzzi, Dantonio's defensive coordinator since 2004. "I had the philosophy of speed. We gradually got him thinking like we do. That's worked to our advantage.
"We've been ahead of the curve for years."
Supreme confidence from the leader of Michigan State's defense. Judging by recent results, Narduzzi has every right to be.
17hSharon Katz, ESPN Stats & Information
2dTom VanHaaren and Erik McKinney