Michigan State defensive coordinator Pat Narduzzi turned down a chance to become the head coach at Connecticut. (Dale G. Young / Detroit News)
East Lansing — Midway through the third quarter of the Big Ten championship game against Ohio State, the Michigan State defense was in trouble.
Ohio State was picking up huge chunks of yardage on the ground and had turned a 17-0 deficit into a 24-17 lead.
It was an unfamiliar position for the Spartans. The nation’s No. 1 defense had spent the entire season stifling opponents, especially on the ground.
But Braxton Miller and Carlos Hyde were as good as the Spartans had seen all year and defensive coordinator Pat Narduzzi knew something had to change.
Narduzzi coaches from the press box and comes down to the sidelines in the fourth quarter. But with the Buckeyes taking control, Narduzzi darted out of the coaches’ box high above the field at Lucas Oil Stadium late in the third quarter and headed to the field.
“Settle us down is the wrong term,” senior linebacker Max Bullough said later when asked what Narduzzi’s desired effect was.
No, Narduzzi needed to get his defense back in the game, and a touchy-feely approach simply wasn’t in the cards.
“The magic words were I said to ‘crank it up, we’re gonna win this,’ ” Narduzzi said after the game. “We talked about chasing it all year, and I said ‘in the fourth quarter, we’re gonna take it.’ That’s what we did.”
Of course, with Narduzzi, there was some more colorful language sprinkled in, but his appearance on the sidelines had its desired effect. The Spartans shut down the Buckeyes from that point as Michigan State rallied to win, 34-24, and reach its first Rose Bowl in 26 seasons.
It was just one example of what Narduzzi means to Michigan State. He has created a defensive juggernaut with the Spartans. Also, he is probably Michigan State’s top recruiter.
Quite simply, he is one of the best coordinators in the country — last week he won the Broyles Award as the nation’s top assistant — and every day he stays at Michigan State is a better day for the Spartans.
How many more days he will be there remains to be seen.
Narduzzi wants to be a head coach, and there seems little doubt he will be someday.
He turned down an offer from Akron last season and another from Connecticut last week. But there will be more teams calling. Maybe not this year, but it will happen soon.
Michigan State, to its credit, is trying to do what it can to keep him in East Lansing. He’ll make nearly $560,000 this season and reports say a raise could bring that up to near $850,000 next season with incentives that could leave his salary approaching $1 million.
It’s certainly deserved, and in a perfect world, Narduzzi hangs around and takes over for Mark Dantonio when the current head coach decides he’s ready to retire.
The only issue is there is no telling when Dantonio will make that decision. At 57, he isn’t exactly in a hurry to call it a career, especially with what he has built in seven seasons leading the Spartans.
That will make it tough for Narduzzi to wait.
“When the opportunity comes and the opportunity is so good that you need to take it, then that’s when you take it,” Dantonio said. “But it’s got to be the right opportunity, and Pat understands that and weighs those things out. I think he’ll be an outstanding head football coach.”
The players who have blossomed under Narduzzi agree.
“He’s just an emotional figure on defense,” Bullough said. “Guys ask why Coach is so good, he’s so much fun to play for? To me, aside from all the game-planning, is the emotion. He might as well be playing the game with the emotion he has. The way he talks, when he calls the plays, the way a certain play affects him … he might as well be playing. That’s what I feed off.
“When someone is that emotional about it, that means he cares about it to the point where he loses it a little bit. That’s special.”
And that’s what Michigan State needs — to keep that emotion, that effect on players, around the program.
When Narduzzi said he was withdrawing from consideration for the Connecticut job, he made clear his next step.
“I’m devoting my full attention to our players and team in preparation for our Rose Bowl game,” he said.
Someday his choice will be to take the job that’s offered. Michigan State needs to make certain it continues to be a difficult decision.