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'We are going to assume that he is the best quarterback we have ever played,': MSU prepares for unexperienced Pitt QB

December 28, 2021
<p>Penn State quarterback Sean Clifford (14) prepares to throw the ball during Michigan State&#x27;s victory over Penn State on Nov. 27, 2021.</p>

Penn State quarterback Sean Clifford (14) prepares to throw the ball during Michigan State's victory over Penn State on Nov. 27, 2021.

Photo by Rahmya Trewern | The State News

When No. 10 Michigan State’s Peach Bowl matchup versus No. 12 Pittsburgh was announced, all eyes turned to the bright stars on both teams. 

For MSU, it was junior running back Kenneth Walker III, the Walter Camp Player of the Year. For Pitt, it was redshirt senior quarterback Kenny Pickett, one of four Heisman Trophy Finalists. 

Then, it turned to the question of how either defense would be able to stop such talented players. But with both Walker and Pickett opting out of playing in Thursday’s game, both defenses can, at least to some extent, take a slight sigh of relief. That is especially true for MSU’s defense that allows the nation’s worst 337.7 passing yards per game, the Achilles’ heel of the team all year long. 

Replacing Pickett as the Panthers signal caller will be redshirt junior Nick Patti. With just one career start in three seasons, Patti presents a new challenge for MSU’s defense: preparing for a quarterback with little game tape. 

Michigan State defensive coordinator Scottie Hazelton and graduate defensive end Drew Beesley both agreed that Pickett and Patti play similar styles, which perhaps can serve as a positive factor in MSU's preparation. Hazelton said that one area the team has looked into is Patti’s scrambling tendencies.

“I think that you see a lot of the same things out of him that you saw out of (Pickett),” Hazelton said. “He’s a decent sized guy, moves around similar … And he throws a good ball and he’s got a strong arm.”

Patti’s lone start came in 2019 versus Delaware as Pickett was nursing an injury. He was solid in the start as a redshirt freshman, completing 62.2% of his throws for 271 yards and two touchdowns. Since then, Patti’s playing time has been scarce with just 19 pass attempts over the last two seasons. 

“From what we did see, he does a lot of great things on offense,” Beesley said. “He’s relatively similar to Pickett. Our goal is just to neutralize him as best as we can, try to put pressure on him constantly in the pass game and try to stop the run up front.”

Part of the process of slowing down Patti will come down to bottling up his weapons. Glaringly, Pittsburgh sophomore wide receiver Jordan Addison draws a lot of attention from opposing defenses for a myriad of reasons. The sophomore receiver was named the Biletnikoff Award winner for the nation’s top receiver with 1,479 receiving yards and 17 touchdowns. 

Addison has seven games with over 100 receiving yards including three games with at least three touchdowns. Only Virginia Tech and North Carolina have been able to hold Addison under 100 yards and out of the endzone in one game. He also provides explosiveness on special teams, averaging 16.8 yards per return since taking over as the team’s punt returner in November. 

The season-long connection between Pickett and Addison cannot get much more dominant than it already was. Even with Patti now at quarterback, Addison’s talent does not go away. Hazelton said the Panthers do a good job of finding creative ways to get him the ball. 

“You don’t win the Biletnikoff without being an outstanding player,” Hazelton said. “And he's a guy we need to know where he is and where he's at because they will put him everywhere. They will put him in the backfield and they will put him out wide and everything in-between.”

Beesley and Hazelton reiterated similar points on how the defense can finish the season on a high note. It stems from playing together as one cohesive unit and being as strong as the unit's weakest link. 

“It’s not just one guy making a mistake. It is everybody making a mistake,” Beesley said, who will be playing in his final game as a Spartan. “We’re in this together as a defense and that’s just everybody doing their job – D-line, linebackers, DBs, the whole defense working together as a whole.”

As football is played today though, it starts with stopping the quarterback. The challenge: slowing down Patti on Thursday night with an injured secondary that has been carved up by numerous offenses.

“We are going to assume that he is the best quarterback we have ever played,” sophomore safety Darius Snow said. “That’s how we approach every single game.”

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