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How Ben Roethlisberger shaped Pat Narduzzi's defensive philosophy

In 2002, Pat Narduzzi was coaching linebackers at Northern Illinois, working under then defensive coordinator and current Syracuse head coach Scott Shafer. On October 12 of that season, the Huskies traveled to Oxford, Ohio for a huge MAC game against Miami (Ohio). Both teams were undefeated in conference play at the time. This was the year before Miami ripped through the MAC en route to a 13-1, top 10 finish, but Ben Roethlisberger and company were still spending their autumn Saturdays haunting the dreams of opposing defenders. 

The Northern Illinois defensive staff defended the Miami attack like most anybody else with two deep safeties, and Big Ben tore them apart. He connected on 41-of-61 passes for 525 yards with four touchdowns against three interceptions while adding a 10-yard scoring dash of his own. Thanks to a balanced attack of its own, Northern Illinois hung on to beat Miami (Ohio), 48-41. It was MACtion before we knew what MACtion was. 

As fate would have it, Narduzzi got the Miami defensive coordinator job the following season. He now spent every practice defending a future two-time Super Bowl winning quarterback. As Narduzzi tells it nearly a dozen years later, the RedHawks' defense hit Roethlisberger with a Cover 4, and it turned Big Ben into Moderately Sized Ben. 

The rest, they say, is history.

Narduzzi spoke for 80 minutes Thursday before a couple hundred coaches at the Angelo Football Clinic on his version of the Cover 4 defense. Narduzzi admitted his coverage can look like man a lot of the time and, I must admit, I couldn't discern much of a difference. But that's kind of the point.

A few notes: 

- Narduzzi charges his players to take ownership of their defense. He pushes his players to create their defensive blueprint. The 2013 slogan was, "A focused group of vicious brothers forever bonded to wreak havoc among all opponents." He then holds his players to the standard that they set for themselves.

- Players also come up with names for each position group. The defensive line was A-WOL, the linebackers were Bomb Squad, and the secondary was No Fly Zone. 

- And how's this for fostering an environment of player ownership? Darqueze Dennard had t-shirts printed up for the defense at a cost of $600. Narduzzi instructed Dennard to hand over the receipt and have the university cover the cost, but Dennard refused. He went on to win the Jim Thorpe Award as college football's top defensive back and was selected 24th overall by the Cincinnati Bengals.

- In addition to Narduzzi, Michigan State employs defensive line coach Ron Burton, linebackers coach Mike Tressel and defensive backs coach Harlon Barnett. Mark Dantonio insisted Narduzzi be a walk-around coordinator upon their arrival in East Lansing, and Narduzzi hated it at first. Now, he loves it.

- Unlike Glenn Spencer, Narduzzi wants his defense to look the same at every snap. He likes his players playing fast and simple because, "the only way you're going to get big hits is when your kids know what they're doing."

- How about this quote? "You're going to be sore after you play us, win or lose."

- Narduzzi likes to call zone pressure because it keeps defenders' eyes on the ball. "We coach defense for 15 days in the spring and through fall camp. Once the season starts, we're coaching offense."

- He showed a chart breaking down the looks his defense showed each season, going back the past half-decade. Michigan State plays its base defense 60 percent of the time, and only played man pressure 14 times total over the past two seasons. That was shocking to me.

- Michigan State recruits cornerbacks more than any other position, and then cycles players forward. Big corners become safeties, big safeties become linebackers, big linebackers become defensive ends, big defensive ends become defensive tackles, big defensive tackles become offensive linemen, and offensive linemen that can't play move to the bench.