CHAPEL HILL, N.C. – Pat Narduzzi directed some of the nation’s top defenses during his stint as defensive coordinator at Michigan State. North Carolina will get its first look at the first-year Pitt head coach’s 4-3 Over/Cover 4 scheme on Thursday night at Heinz Field.
Narduzzi’s final four Spartan defenses in East Lansing ranked top-10 nationally in total and rushing defense, and were top-10 in scoring defense in three of the four years.
“Year-in and year-out, you watch all of the different opponents that play them,” UNC assistant head coach for offense Seth Littrell said on Monday. “Very rarely do they get a lot of points put up on them.”
Littrell has first-hand experience against Narduzzi's defense from his time as Indiana’s offensive coordinator in 2012-13. Indiana set seven single-season offensive records, including points per game (38.4) and yards per game (508.5), during his final season in Bloomington, although one statistic in particular provides insight into the challenge and temptation that a Narduzzi defense represents.
In a 42-28 loss at Michigan State on Oct. 12, 2013, Indiana, which led the Big Ten that season in passing offense (306.7), averaged a mere 5.5 yards per pass attempt.
Narduzzi, 49, brings a defense to the ACC’s Coastal Division that shares a commonality with Larry Fedora’s offensive scheme: simplicity. The 2013 Broyles Award winner has said his defense could play an entire game in its base 4-3 set due to the versatility of its design.
“I think you have to be simplified,” Narduzzi said last week. “If you look at all the backfield sets, formations, motions, and the different run-and-pass plays you're going to get out of an offense, how can you have so much defense that you can't possibly coach up all those defenses and fit them all up run-wise and pass-wise, and then expect your kids to play fast and blame them when it's not good?”
With only 20 hours during the week to prep his defense for its next opponent, Narduzzi elects to take away what college offenses do best – run plays and short passing plays, such as screens and quick hit routes (shallow crosses, etc.).
He stacks a Cover-4 – a coverage former UNC defensive coordinator Vic Koenning preferred to call Quarters – on top of his 4-3 Over set, bringing his safeties up to within 8-9 yards of the line of scrimmage while playing press coverage with his cornerbacks on the perimeter. Given Narduzzi’s preference to stop the run at all costs, the safeties’ proximity to the line of scrimmage before the snap often results in a nine-man front.
“Everybody, safeties and outside backers, are definitely about stopping the run,” UNC offensive line coach Chris Kapilovic said.
That approach not only limits basic running plays, but it also puts more defenders in position to counter read-option plays and run-pass options. The numbers advantages that offensive coaches, Fedora and Littrell included, rely on to move the chains and create explosive plays are less available due to fewer seams in the defense.
“When you snap the football, it doesn’t matter what formation you run, those safeties and those alley backers are going to be fitting,” Littrell said. “So there’s always going to be nine people around the box within 5-6 yards after that ball is snapped. They trigger extremely quick, so you’ve got to do a really good job of making sure you attack.
“You’re going to have to break tackles. You’re going to have to make a bunch of competitive plays, whether it’s at the running back position or out wide at the wide receiver position.”
Narduzzi often remains in his base defense until 3rd-and-medium and 3rd-and-long plays, which is when he brings a variety of exotic blitzes – two defenders attacking the same gap, for example – at an 80 percent clip, according to Kapilovic.
Pitt ranks T-14th nationally with 22 sacks this season (sixth among teams that have played seven games), as well as 16th in total defense (308.3 ypg) and 33rd in scoring defense (21.6).
There are notable design flaws, although Narduzzi doesn’t shy away from those weaknesses. His intent, as noted earlier, is to take away what college offenses do best and tempt opposing coordinators into taking shots down the field. Few college quarterbacks can consistently connect on deep fade routes or other vertical throws similar in nature, which brings us back to that 2013 Indiana-Michigan State game.
Littrell, known for his willingness to throw deep, went to that well quite often and only hit once, on a 53-yard pass play from Nate Sudfeld to Shane Wynn. Indiana averaged 4.5 yards per attempt on its other 46 passes.
In fairness, Littrell’s Hoosiers lacked the quality and depth of talent of the Spartans. Thursday night’s game between UNC and Pittsburgh provides a level playing field, talent-wise, which in turn should offer plenty of explosive play opportunities in the passing game for the Tar Heels.
“When you do have a shot, and you do have an opportunity, you’ve got to capitalize,” Kapilovic said. “You see some games in the past where teams have had success and when they had an opportunity for a big play, they capitalized on it. If you don’t, then you’re going to be running uphill all night.”
UNC has 26 passing plays of 20 yards or more this season, including seven of 40 yards or more.
As unique and adaptive as Narduzzi’s defense may be, Fedora’s offense is equally as simplistic and willing to take what opposing defenses give, which suggests that quarterback Marquise Williams will be eyeing various targets in UNC’s vertical passing game.
“We’ve never been the type of team that changes just because of some other team’s defense,” wide receiver Mack Hollins said. “We know what we’re good at, and we know if we’re executing the right way, there’s nobody that can stop us.”