Big Ten

Big Ten preview: Without Pat Narduzzi, will Spartans still have elite defense?

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Big Ten preview: Without Pat Narduzzi, will Spartans still have elite defense?

Mark Dantonio deserves all the credit in the world for the great success Michigan State has had over the past several seasons. But he didn’t do it alone.

The Spartans established themselves as an elite defensive team in recent seasons thanks to the efforts of former defensive coordinator Pat Narduzzi. With Dantonio and Narduzzi at the helm, Michigan State’s defense was perhaps the nation’s best in 2013, when the team won a Big Ten championship and claimed victory in the Rose Bowl. Last season, the numbers dipped a bit, but the Spartans defense was still a fear-inspiring one for many opponents.

Narduzzi left this offseason to become the head coach at Pitt. And now the Spartans have to move on without one of the best coordinators in the country.

“We’ll still be the same Spartan Dawgs. That’s who we are,” defensive end Shilique Calhoun said last month during Big Ten Media Days, illustrating that apparently the “next man up” mentality applies to when coaches leave, too. “Our coaching staff does a great job. It was never a point where we thought coach Narduzzi was handling everything. Everyone had a hand in everything that we did, so there’s going to be no need for picking up the slack.

“He’s irreplaceable because he’s coach Narduzzi, but at the same time, he would never have left us in terrible condition. He understands what we have, and he understands the potential we have as players and coaches. So I know we’re going to have a great year. We’re still going to have that same swarming-to-the-ball defense, all green helmets on everything and that live sideline. He’s not going to be coming down this year in the fourth quarter, but somebody will.”

[MORE BIG TEN: Big Ten preview: Spartans have earned status as national-title contenders]

Calhoun is one of the reasons that it’s pretty clear the Michigan State defense is still in good hands, even though Narduzzi is no longer running the show. The senior defensive lineman is back for his senior season and a terrific team leader. But as the talent has slowly departed on that side of the ball, can the Spartans still be an elite defense?

Two seasons ago, it was Calhoun alongside superstar cornerback Darqueze Dennard and a leader of a linebacker in Max Bullough. Those two guys left after the Rose Bowl, yielding to another superstar corner in Trae Waynes, as well as an All-Big Ten safety in Kurtis Drummond. Calhoun — who was always in the class of the rest of those stud defenders — now seems a little more alone. An injury to linebacker Ed Davis will loom large for the Spartans, and the secondary, while still capable, might no longer be the “No Fly Zone” it was a couple seasons back. Even last season, with two excellent players in Waynes and Drummond, the Spartans’ pass defense ranked in the middle of the pack in the Big Ten.

Narduzzi was viewed by many as one of the top coordinators in college football, a head coach in waiting, and now he has that opportunity at Pitt.

[MORE BIG TEN: Big Ten preview: Can Dave Aranda's defense again lead the way for Badgers?]

That creates new opportunities for a pair of Michigan State assistants, who Dantonio named Narduzzi’s replacements in December. Secondary coach Harlon Barnett and linebackers coach Mike Tressel were each given co-defensive coordinator duties, and Dantonio has all the faith that they’ll keep the tradition going, even though Narduzzi will certainly be missed.

“We really stayed the course with our defense,” Dantonio said. “I feel like we have a lot of experience there. We've got a lot of players coming back. We had some bell cows at every single position. So that's exciting to watch as well. But we're always going to critique everything that we do. Regardless of whatever year it's been, we critique it. We add some things. We subtract some things. And we try to rebuild a little bit differently or keep a lot of things structurally the same. But we're always trying to look to improve and critique what we've done, and that's been the norm.

“As far as those two guys, they have a tremendous amount of respect for both of them, the job that they've done. They've both had opportunities to leave and become coordinators or co-coordinators or go into the NFL and those type of things, and they've stayed the course. I think they deserve this opportunity. This is an opportunity for growth, much like from a defensive coordinator becoming a head coach. There's a lot of growth that has to take place. So the same thing happens when you go from position coach to a coordinator position. I think they've done an outstanding job at that thus far. And the proof is in what the players say. When I have my player meetings with our players throughout May and June, about a half hour each with 100 plus players, you know, that question gets asked. So they have a great deal of respect for both those coaches, and we're going to be fine, and we're going to pick up exactly where we left off.”

Northwestern set to play Wisconsin at Wrigley Field in 2020

Northwestern set to play Wisconsin at Wrigley Field in 2020

Weeks will separate a perfect 10-year anniversary where Northwestern will play at Wrigley Field for one of its regular season games in the upcoming years.

Back on Nov. 20, 2010, the Wildcats battled it out with Illinois, known as the “Wrigleyville Classic,” which saw the Illini take a 48-27 win.

Even though it’s still two years out, Northwestern still planned ahead and announced its opponent for its game at Wrigley Field on Nov. 7, 2020, against Big Ten rival Wisconsin.

“Obviously an exciting opportunity for our football program to come back to Wrigley Field, one of the Cathedrals of sporting venues in the world,” Northwestern coach Pat Fitzgerald said. “When I announced it to our team, they were absolutely ecstatic.”

“The opportunity to play at Wrigley field is unique to us, being Chicago’s Big Ten team, and to have the chance to come down and play in an atmosphere like we did a few years back was a bowl game type atmosphere, and I look forward to this special opportunity.”

This game though will be a little different than it was back in 2010. Both the Wildcats and Illini played toward the west end zone due to a tight squeeze near the right field wall due to box seats that were added down the third base line.

Now, Northwestern and Wisconsin do not have to worry about that problem because the bullpens have since moved to the outfield.

Cubs president of business operations Crane Kenney spoke at a news conference earlier on Tuesday at Wrigley.

“So excited to welcome back Northwestern to Wrigley Field to talk about football again,” Kenney said. “We had an incredible experience with them back in 2010."

Kenney also mentioned new seating is on a temporary platform that can all be removed and the dugout tops can be removed as well, and the field will expand west, to allow for a longer field.

With a sellout crowd in the last go around for the Wildcats, don’t be surprised for another sellout at the Friendly Confines.

See how they stack up: Week 12 college football top 25 rankings

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USA TODAY

See how they stack up: Week 12 college football top 25 rankings

With Week 12 in the books, here’s my top 25:

1. Oklahoma (10-1)

Still the team with the best resume in the country, no one can compete with OU’s wins over TCU, Ohio State and Oklahoma State, the latter two coming away from Norman. Baker Mayfield might not be a choir boy, but he’s the best player in the nation.

2. Miami (10-0)

You might think that being down 28-14 to Virginia in the second half was cringe-worthy, but the Canes made up for things by storming back with 30 unanswered points. Now they finally have to go away from South Florida for the first time since almost losing to North Carolina last month.

3. Alabama (11-0)

Tide gonna roll. But this Cupcake Weekend in the SEC has got to stop. While teams in other conferences are slugging it out against rivals, Bama gets to take a day off against Mercer? It’s just not fair. Also, Bama’s schedule is so soft, there’s no way it deserves to be the No. 1 team in the country.

4. Georgia (10-1)

The Dawgs should wrap an 11-1 regular season this weekend against Georgia Tech. But the SEC title game presents a kind of no-win scenario: undefeated Alabama or Auburn, who throttled Georgia earlier this month.

5. Wisconsin (11-0)

You didn’t need Wisconsin to do what it did to Iowa and Michigan to prove it had one of the best defenses in the country — but that sure didn’t help. Stockpiling national love with those two wins, a win in the Big Ten title game figures to make the Badgers a Playoff lock.

6. Clemson (10-1)

Why’d Kelly Bryant have to go and get hurt for that Syracuse game? The Tigers would be No. 1 and the undisputed best team in the country. Still, though, a win over Miami in the ACC title game ought to get the champs back into the Playoff.

7. Auburn (9-2)

Great job pounding Louisiana-Monroe, Tigers. You shall not escape the wrath over Cupcake Weekend in the SEC. That dumb game aside, Auburn and Alabama will meet in a titanic Iron Bowl this weekend with a trip to the SEC title game on the line — and perhaps a Playoff spot, as well.

8. Ohio State (9-2)

Not that pummeling Illinois is any big deal, but the Buckeyes are still alive in this thing and look like a team capable of making some Playoff noise. First, Ohio State has to win The Game and then the Big Ten title game to knock out undefeated Wisconsin.

9. Notre Dame (9-2)

Out of the Playoff chase thanks to that loss at Miami, Notre Dame squeaked by Navy this past weekend. Hope a New Year’s Six bowl game is enough for the Irish. We know it’s not enough for those ND fans. So maybe join a conference? Just saying.

10. TCU (9-2)

The Frogs can still make their mark on the Playoff race, even if they can’t get in themselves. The Big 12 title game will almost surely be TCU’s attempt at revenge on Oklahoma. Unfortunately, if revenge does come, it will probably cannibalize the conference’s Playoff hopes, too.

11. Penn State (9-2)

Why Penn State gave up 44 points to Nebraska, I do not know. What I do know is that probably no one cared because Penn State is going to go down as the most inconsequential 10-2 team of all-time. Such a bummer considering the preseason expectations for both the team and Saquon Barkley.

12. USC (10-2)

Yeah, I guess there’s still a way for USC to make the Playoff, but it’s hard to imagine that madness unfolding, even in the oft-mad college football. The Trojans get the winner of the Apple Cup in the Pac-12 title game.

13. UCF (10-0)

Finally we get our much-anticipated UCF-USF showdown this weekend. Make it count, Knights. This is probably gonna be Scott Frost’s last regular-season game in Orlando.

14. Washington (9-2)

It’s hard to say who has the edge in the Apple Cup, but certainly the stakes are high, with the winner going off to play USC in the Pac-12 title game. Can either team make the Playoff? Well, probably not, no.

15. Washington State (9-2)

Is this it for Mike Leach on The Palouse? He could be a hot candidate this offseason and leave for perceived greener pastures. Winning the Apple Cup would go a long way toward making that happen.

16. Mississippi State (8-3)

A win in the Egg Bowl means a 9-3 regular season for the Bulldogs with their three losses coming against three top-10 teams.

17. Oklahoma State (8-3)

Poor Okie State has been so good all year and had two losses to the two best teams in its conference, and then it went and lost to K-State for some ridiculous reason. The Mullet deserved better in 2017.

18. Northwestern (8-3)

The Cats are the fourth-best team in the Big Ten, simple as that, with wins over Michigan State and Iowa and conference losses to Wisconsin and Penn State. As commendable an effort as you’ll find in a highly competitive league. Plus, Fitz’s team is on a six-game win streak that could end up extending to eight.

19. Stanford (8-3)

Already with a win over Washington, Stanford could close the regular season with two wins over top-10 teams in its final three games. Also Bryce Love is back in the groove after back-to-back 100-yard games.

20. Memphis (9-1)

The Tigers have lost just one game all season, to the best Group of Five team out there. Heck of a season by Memphis.

21. Michigan State (8-3)

A 17-7 win over Maryland couldn't have been the most exciting way for anyone to spend their weekend. Sparty's had a mighty fine season, though, considering how badly things went in 2016.

22. LSU (8-3)

The SEC has seemingly gotten increasingly better as the year has progressed, with LSU and Mississippi State making for a solid-enough middle tier. But remember when LSU lost to Troy? That wasn’t good.

23. South Florida (9-1)

If not for that loss to Houston, USF’s showdown with UCF this weekend would be for Group of Five supremacy. Even without that, though, this should be a highly entertaining affair.

24. Virginia Tech (8-3)

The Hokies have a chance to salvage their tumble at the close of the season with a win at Virginia. But given how well the Cavs played at Miami this past weekend, a VT win is no sure thing.

25. Iowa State (7-4)

I understand the math and all, but can't the Big 12 just suspend its rules and send Iowa State to the title game? We all want to see the OU-ISU rematch. Why are you preventing us from being happy, Big 12?