Behind elite defense, Michigan State out to resume winning ways
EAST LANSING, Mich. -- Pat Narduzzi prefaced his presentation with a declaration.
"Stats are for losers," the Michigan State defensive coordinator said as he prepared for practice on a chilly day in March. "The only stat that really matters is winning."
Then Narduzzi grabbed his iPad, flipped it around and showed a visitor some eye-popping statistics that don't seem to square with the 7-6 record the Spartans posted last season. The one that jumps off the Retina display? Opponents went three-and-out 44.1 percent of the time against Michigan State's defense. While he and the rest of the staff suffered through five losses by a combined 13 points, Narduzzi didn't think about the stats. He thought about the losses and what he could do to prevent more. After the season, when he had time to reflect and time to have his magical quality control elves crunch the numbers, Narduzzi realized just how good the defense had been in an otherwise mediocre season. "Better than pretty good," Narduzzi said. "First in the Big Ten in every category."
The Spartans didn't finish first in every category, but they led the league in most of the categories that mattered. Michigan State led the Big Ten in scoring defense (16.3 points a game), total defense (274.4 yards a game) and rushing defense (98.6 yards a game). It finished fourth in the nation in total defense. That 44.1 percent three-and-out number seems impressive, but that isn't a commonly available stat. To test it, I grabbed the drive charts from every game played by Alabama and Florida State, which had the nation's two most statistically dominant defenses. After throwing out drives cut short by the end of a half, I counted how many times those teams forced a punt in three plays, forced a turnover in three plays or fewer or forced a turnover on downs in four plays. Alabama forced three-and-outs on 44.9 percent of opponents' possessions. Florida State did it on 47.5 percent of opponents' possessions. So yes, Michigan State's defense dominated pretty thoroughly last season -- just as it has for the past four seasons.
That explains why schools keep coming after Narduzzi. He has turned down head-coaching jobs at lower levels. After the 2011 season, he turned down defensive coordinator gigs at Texas A&M and Tennessee. He thought long and hard about Tennessee, but then-coach Derek Dooley wanted Narduzzi to think quicker and wound up hiring Sal Sunseri. The Volunteers finished last in the SEC in total defense and scoring defense, and Dooley got fired. He'd probably still be there if he could have talked Narduzzi into taking the job. "We'd have shut people down," Narduzzi said. "They had players. I saw them on tape." But Narduzzi loves working for Mark Dantonio, his boss since 2004. Narduzzi also loves working with assistants Mike Tressel and Harlon Barnett, who have been with him since 2004. The appreciation is mutual, evidenced by the $500,000 salary Dantonio and Michigan State athletic director Mark Hollis gave Narduzzi after the two SEC schools came calling. If Michigan State ever loses Narduzzi, it will be to a head-coaching job in a power conference.
Until the nation's athletic directors recognize Narduzzi's readiness, the Big Ten is stuck dealing with him in East Lansing. That wasn't such a problem last year as Michigan State's offense struggled to find its footing following the departure of quarterback Kirk Cousins and the skill players who accounted for 84 percent of Michigan State's receiving yardage in 2011. But if the Spartans can find some reliable receivers, and if Nick Hill, Jeremy Langford or Nick Tompkins can replace most of the production provided by Le'Veon Bell, Michigan State could make a huge leap in the win column.
Despite the losses of end Will Gholston and cornerback Johnny Adams, the defense shouldn't take a step back in 2013. Linebackers Max Bullough and Denicos Allen lead a group that punishes teams that try to run inside, while cornerbacks Darqueze Dennard and Trae Waynes work to funnel receivers toward the sidelines and force opposing quarterbacks to throw high-degree-of-difficulty fades. Narduzzi believes the unit can reload, and Dantonio explains that reloading is easier with so much continuity on the coaching staff. "Our guys come in learning algebra, and they leave knowing trig," Dantonio said. "That's the difference." And it's a huge difference. Not to pick on Tennessee, but those poor defenders are on their third coordinator in three seasons. They're learning yet another style of algebra. The Spartans, meanwhile, have players such as Bullough who understand the system so well that they make proper in-game corrections for schemes they've never seen even before they get back to the sideline to discuss them with Narduzzi.
Though he hated the losses last year, Bullough hopes the Spartans can use them to create something positive. "There's something to be said about experience," Bullough said. "There's something to be said about having been there and having won and lost in those situations. You know what to do."
Every time Michigan State got edged last season, Bullough remained optimistic. The defense dominated. The scores were so close. "You wanted to think," Bullough said, "that the next week you were going to get the other half of the coin." Unfortunately for Bullough and his teammates, good and bad luck aren't typically doled out in equal portions during a season.
By the time the Spartans rolled into Minneapolis to close the regular season at Minnesota, they were 5-6 and needed a win to reach a bowl game. That week, Narduzzi decided to ditch a longtime philosophy. "I usually have realistic goals as far as what we plan to do," Narduzzi said. But instead of challenging his defense to pressure the quarterback, win every first down or force third-and-longs, Narduzzi gave his players one mission. "I said 'We're going in for a shutout,'" Narduzzi said. "The key to victory was a shutout."
Narduzzi would never say this, but after a season spent watching Michigan State's sputtering offense, this truly was the only way to guarantee victory. That day, the Spartans allowed seven first downs, four rushing yards and 96 total yards. They didn't get their shutout. Michigan State quarterback Andrew Maxwell threw a first-quarter pick-six, and the Spartans allowed a third-quarter field goal drive. But they won, and that earned some much-needed additional practice for the offense. It also allowed Waynes to gain confidence at cornerback while replacing the injured Adams.
Afterward, the Spartans had a chance to analyze their season. They realized they weren't as mediocre as 7-6 suggested. "Our record," safety Isaiah Lewis said, "didn't show at all what kind of team we were." But, as their coaches often remind them, they still managed to finish 7-6. They'll have to make corrections to avoid that again.
But as corrections go, they're slight. Thirteen points in five games are pretty easy to find for a veteran team. Especially a veteran team that wouldn't have to play Ohio State until the Big Ten title game. Especially for a veteran team that statistics show plays great defense. Especially for a veteran team due a little bit of good luck after a season of near-misses.
"I hope that's how the breaks go," Bullough said, "and it switches this year."