When Pat Narduzzi left Cincinnati to follow Mark Dantonio to Michigan State in 2007, becoming the Spartans’ new defensive coordinator, he began a nearly decade-long run as the highly successful architect of some very talented defenses.
Narduzzi won the Broyles Award as college football’s top assistant coach in 2013, helping the Spartans to a record-breaking 13-1 season in which MSU’s defense allowed just 13 points and 250 yards per game. His defenses in the early 2010s routinely led the Big 10 in the heyday of Dantonio’s Spartans.
When he left for Pitt, coming off a New Year’s Six Cotton Bowl win over Baylor in his last game as the Michigan State defensive coordinator, he inherited a program that had experienced an extended stretch of mediocrity over the early 2010s.
While it’s taken some time, with an ACC Coastal title a few seasons ago, Narduzzi has led Pitt to its best season in about four decades. With an electric offense led by Kenny Pickett, and a defense that completely stifled a high-powered Wake Forest offense to clinch the first conference title in program history, Pitt arrived.
Coming off the biggest game of his career, Pitt’s New Year’s Six Peach Bowl at the end of the month now shifts to the forefront as Narduzzi’s biggest game as a college head coach. And it just so happens to come against No. 10 Michigan State.
However, for Narduzzi, it’s just another game in which Pitt must go 1-0.
“We’re excited obviously to be in this game,” Narduzzi said during the Peach Bowl coaches media Zoom call. “But it’s a football game. It doesn’t matter who the opponent is. We’ve got a great opponent. It doesn’t matter that I coached there for a few years. That will not play into any role at all.”
Dantonio stepped down as Michigan State’s head coach in 2020, and then-Colorado head coach Mel Tucker stepped down to accept the position in East Lansing, Michigan. Tucker also holds ties to Michigan State, having served as a graduate assistant under then-MSU head coach Nick Saban in 1997. And just to go full circle here, the Narduzzi-less Spartans lost to Saban’s Alabama in the 2015 CFP semifinals.
With Tucker’s new staff in place, Narduzzi said the players and almost all of the coaching staff that had been in place during his time in East Lansing have since moved on. However, Narduzzi has been watching Tucker from afar for a while now, and he likes what he sees.
“You know, I’ve admired coach Tucker from afar,” Narduzzi said. “We’ve not been fortunate enough to work with each other, but just admired his work. I know he’s been a defensive coordinator and defensive backs coach throughout his career, and I know Mark Dantonio spoke very, very highly of him in the days that he worked with him. That’s my knowledge of Mel.”
Tucker’s coaching career has been winding, spending time in the NFL as a defensive coordinator with the Cleveland Browns, Jacksonville Jaguars and Chicago Bears and across college football with Ohio State, Alabama and Georgia before heading to Colorado in 2019.
After a 2-5 COVID-shortened season in 2020, Tucker’s Spartans jumped out to an 8-0 start and No. 3 ranking in the CFP poll this season after beating rival Michigan in East Lansing. And despite a 2-2 finish to the season, it was enough to earn Big Ten Coach of the Year honors and a new 10-year, $95-million contract.
With a ground-and-pound approach offensively, led by star running back Kenneth Walker III, Michigan State’s offense can slug through close games and burn the clock away in late-game opportunities, but the Spartans’ defense isn’t quite on the level of Narduzzi’s defenses of old. The Spartans have been torched through the air defensively this season, giving up a ton of yards to opposing quarterbacks. See the Ohio State loss for reference.
Despite a lackluster defense at times this season, Michigan State’s defense is stout against the run and features some athletes who can get after the quarterback. Narduzzi, who obviously has seen his fair share of Big Ten football, feels like that experience could be a bit of an advantage.
“I think it is,” Narduzzi said. “I kind of know Big Ten football a little bit. But football is football. Different players, different colored jerseys, different logos, but football is football. But just kind of where they come from, I think it helps a little bit.”
And while Pitt’s defense not quite on the levels of Michigan State under Narduzzi in the early 2010s, he feels like the MSU fans who remember his defenses will feel some level of deja vu while watching Pitt’s aggressive defense.
I think so,” Narduzzi said. “Yeah, I think they’ll see – they’ll kind of know what it looks like. It’s the same aggressive style of defense that we had up in East Lansing, and it’s kind of what we do. Randy Bates, our defensive coordinator, does a nice job.”
In a battle of contrasting yet effective offensive styles, whichever defense that can either stop Pickett and Pitt’s passing attack or Walker and MSU’s ground-and-pound attack will emerge victorious. With two defensive-oriented head coaches, it’s about more than just familiarity and homecoming, it’s about a football game.