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How MSU's defense is preparing for Pittsburgh's high-powered offense with new faces

December 28, 2021
<p>MSU defensive coordinator Scottie Hazelton talks to players during winter workouts in early March 2020.</p>

MSU defensive coordinator Scottie Hazelton talks to players during winter workouts in early March 2020.

Photo by Courtesy of MSU Athletic Communications | The State News

The struggles of Michigan State’s defense have been well documented throughout the 2021 season. It was the Achilles' heel that prevented Michigan State from being in the Big Ten championship contention down the stretch of the season.

MSU ranked 117th in the FBS in overall defense (455.9 YAPG) and dead last in passing defense (337.7 passing yards allowed per game) and relied heavily on its red zone defense to keep other teams off the scoreboard.

The challenge for Michigan State’s defense in the Peach Bowl might be its toughest yet. Pittsburgh won the ACC championship on the back of its high-octane offense, which scored 43 points per game, good for third-best in the country. 

Pittsburgh ranks behind Western Kentucky and Ohio State in terms of scoring offense, both of whom MSU played during the regular season. The familiarity that MSU developed against the nation’s best has given the Spartan defense a certain mindset going into yet another tough challenge defensively, defensive coordinator Scottie Hazelton said.

“I think that’s just kind of the draw, right?” Hazelton said. “You just gotta keep choppin’ and keep working. And the guys have to understand, and I think that we do, Are we going to give up a play? Sure. Are we going to get scored on? Sure. But that's something you have to be able to put it out of your mind and go on to the next play.”

However, Michigan State has a uniquely challenging set of circumstances while preparing for Pittsburgh’s offense. The Panthers’ offensive coordinator Mark Whipple took the same job with Nebraska following the season and was replaced by tight ends coach Tim Salem as the play caller for the Peach Bowl. 

“I'm just focused on the day-to-day activities,” Salem said. “I'm just focused on what we're doing for practice and making sure we're organized. And it's been a welcome because we haven't changed. I've known coach Narduzzi for seven years so the practices haven't changed. I'm familiar, players are familiar.”

Pitt will also be without its star of the show, redshirt senior quarterback Kenny Pickett. Pittsburgh’s Heisman finalist quarterback opted out of the bowl game and will be replaced by redshirt junior quarterback Nick Patti

Patti only appeared in five games for the Panthers this year as the backup for Pickett. Patti was 12-14 for 140 yards in his limited appearances but he said he is confident he will be able to fill the massive shoes left by his predecessor thanks to the support he’s received from the team. 

“I think why we had so much success was just because we have the family environment,” Patti said. “When someone has to step up, everyone's excited for 'em because they see the work that they do behind the scenes and in practice every day. And I think the guys have just rallied around me mostly because they see how hard I've worked this year.”

The new faces give Michigan State’s defense little to work with in terms of film to prepare for what they will see from Patti and the Pittsburgh offense on Thursday night. 

“It was a real deal to be able to say, 'Okay, who is this guy?’” Hazelton said. “And he's very similar so we're excited to see how it goes.”

Pitt’s top receiver, Biletnikoff Award winner Jordan Addison, had high praise for Patti and the work he has put in since Pickett announced he would not play in the Peach Bowl.

“He's been doing a pretty good job,” Addison said. “When he talks, everybody stays quiet and listens. So he has that dominance in the room and I think we're gonna be fine.”

Outside of Pickett and Whipple, the personnel of Pitt’s potent offense remains the same. Skill position players like Addison, junior running back Vincent Davis and sophomore running back Israel Abanikanda will still be playing Thursday. Despite the changes in signal-callers, it is business as usual for Pitt’s top offensive threats.

“We just gonna do whatever it takes to win — running, passing, blocking — anything it takes for us to win this bowl game,” Abanikanda said.

Like Abanikanda, Addison said his approach for the game will not change despite having a new quarterback to sling him the ball against Michigan State’s fragile and poor secondary. Addison added he isn’t excited about playing MSU’s secondary despite seeing the strong games other receivers have had against the Spartans.

“I'm not excited because I've seen everybody else have success against them,” Addison said. “I'm excited because it's just another opportunity for me to go out there and play and show what I can do.”

The preparation for Michigan State’s defense reminded the Pitt offensive players of a number of different teams the Panthers have faced this season, Abanikanda said. He said they are preparing for MSU to throw multiple looks and schemes at them and to bring pressure through the blitz often.

“Definitely a lot of similarities to other teams we played,” Abanikanda said. “They blitz a lot, they got good tacklers in the back end of the defense. Just a lot of similarities we played against.”

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