Dec. 8, 2013
By Steve Grinczel, MSUSpartans.com Online Columnist | @GrinzOnGreen
INDIANAPOLIS, Ind. - When Michigan State defensive coordinator Pat Narduzzi comes down from the coaching box to join the team on the sideline, the Spartans are either about to win going away or they're in a bit of a jam.
It was a case of the latter on Saturday night's Big Ten championship game when Narduzzi's nation-leading defense gave up three unanswered touchdowns and a field goal and the Spartans went from leading Ohio State 17-0 to trailing 24-17.
With Narduzzi on the sideline, MSU shut the Buckeyes out in the final 20 minutes to pull out a 34-24 victory for its first undisputed Big Ten title and trip to the Rose Bowl since the 1987 season.
"It's just emotional support, like a counselor," Narduzzi said. "It's just to be around the guys. You're so hands-off up in the booth, but I can see what's going on. (So, defensive backfield coach) Harlon Barnett stayed up there and was telling me what I need to be told.
"Usually, after three quarters I've got a good feel for what they're trying to do."
Ohio State cut MSU's lead to 17-10 just before halftime, and then continued its run in the second half with quarterback Braxton Miller and tailback Carlos Hyde combining for 121 rushing yards in the third quarter. Miller's 8- and 6-yard touchdown runs put the Buckeyes ahead 24-17 and had Narduzzi heading for the elevator.
"The message was, `Guys, we have to start playing some fundamentals and we have to win up front,' " Narduzzi said. "The first place I went was to talk to the defensive line because we weren't winning inside. There were times we had it sealed up, but they were just twisting our guys out of the gaps.
"They've got about as good an offensive line as you're going to face."
Nevertheless, Narduzzi didn't see it as a dire situation despite trailing by a touchdown.
"I told them with 24 points on the board that if (the Buckeyes) don't score again, we win the game," he said. "You've just got to keep doing what you're doing and it comes down to attitude. Our kids had an attitude in the fourth quarter that we were going to take it, and they did."
Outside linebacker Denicos Allen made a key stop by tackling Miller for a 1-yard gain on fourth-and-2 at the MSU 39 midway through the fourth quarter.
Meantime, the offense regrouped to score 17 straight points and put the game out of reach.
Defensive end Shilique Calhoun said Narduzzi's presence made a difference.
"He just told us we needed to whip into shape," Calhoun said. "The biggest thing was we weren't doing our job. We weren't playing the way we practiced. Then he came down and said, `If we're going to win this game, you guys need to get on board and do what you need to do.' "
Allen's name was barely mentioned until his big stop, which was inspired by Narduzzi.
"He told me I needed to step up and play my game," Allen said. "I knew I wasn't playing the best I have been. Once I heard that, I knew it was time. Coach Duzzi came down. That's all I got to say.
"There's just something about Coach Duzzi. We all respect him as a coach and as a person. When he comes down, we know it's serious. We know that we've got to step up and we've got to do it for him. He's such a great coach and puts us in great situations and the best way to show that we appreciate that is to go out and dominate."
GoG Notes & Quotes: In the fourth game of the season, redshirt sophomore Connor Cook was benched for the final series of the loss at Notre Dame because head coach Mark Dantonio didn't think he could stage a last-minute comeback.
In the 13th game of the season, Cook was named Most Valuable Player of the Big Ten championship game after leading the Spartans from behind to score 17 unanswered points.
Cook completed 24 of 40 passes for a career-high 304 yards and three touchdowns while overcoming the damage caused by one interception.
The highlight of Cook's best career performance to date was an eight-play, 90-yard drive that ended on his 9-yard pass to tight end Josiah Price for the go-ahead touchdown early in the fourth quarter. The possession featured a 48-yard pass to wideout Macgarrett Kings Jr.
Cook said he was "just trying to make smart decisions, put my team in the best position possible, and not make any critical errors that close to the goal line and trust myself."
The play to Kings, which put the ball at the OSU 40-yard line after a 10-yard penalty for a block in the back was assessed against the Spartans, took some fast thinking.
"We lined up in the wrong formation, first of all," Cook said. "I called the wrong formation for different personnel so I had to rearrange (Kings) on the right side. Then we had a single-receiver route to the field, and that wasn't open so I came back to Kings and he was wide open on the corner. I just read the defense and hit the open guy."
Cook said his success is simply the product of a team bond.
"Where I was at in September, my confidence wasn't that high," he said. "Once we started clicking, my confidence got bigger and bigger. The journey's been cool with me, but the journey amongst all of us has been even better.
"We're so tight. I think we're so good at what we do because of team chemistry."
The opposite of how MSU felt after losing to Wisconsin in the inaugural Big Ten championship game in 2011 was on display all over strong safety Isaiah Lewis' face.
"I'm happy right now," said the Indianapolis native who grew up 15 minutes away from Lucas Oil Stadium. "I'm ecstatic. I'm going to use that word. Nothing can put me down right now. I'm on top of the world."
Not even questions about his running-into-the-kicker penalty that ended the Spartans' chance at a comeback two years ago against the Badgers.
"I erased that memory right now," Lewis said.