Mike Wilson: Narduzzi is something else. It is impressive Michigan State has been able to hold onto him for this long, really. What he does well is sticking with his scheme. He doesn't stray much from the base defense and their basic few packages on third downs. The coaching is gap-oriented and players understand their assignments, which makes it successful. It also doesn't hurt that there are multiple three- or four-year starters with guys like Max Bullough and Darqueze Dennard. The defense takes on Narduzzi's personality, too, which is that of intensity and tenacity. It really is an extension of him.
NM: I followed your coverage of the four-man battle for the MSU quarterback position earlier this year. How did Connor Cook emerge? Did the competition help Mark Dantonio find the right guy?
MW: Cook emerged when incumbent Andrew Maxwell wasn't getting the job done in the first couple games while splitting time. The coaches valued/value his ability to move around and extend plays when protection breaks down. Creating plays and game management were the points of emphasis in that battle and Cook was the obvious choice after three games.
It's hard to argue with the results on the field with Cook. He doesn't turn the ball over much and is big on third downs (seven touchdowns, no interceptions). It's funny to think back on because of plenty of jokes along the lines of "if you have two quarterbacks, you don't have a quarterback, so what happens when you have four?" It worked out for MSU this season -- so far.
NM: Which players are you projecting to have big games against Northwestern (Dennard, Calhoun, etc.)? Is there any way NU can find success against MSU, and where might the Spartans' weakness lie?
MW: I would point to Shilique Calhoun. Northwestern allows quite a few sacks and Calhoun is a tough matchup at defensive end. I also think this is a game where linebacker Taiwan Jones has to get into the mix with a mobile guy like Kain Colter running around. Colter also is where I think the Wildcats can have some success. The MSU defense doesn't give up much, but is prone to the occasional big play provided by a mobile QB. As he moves around and wide receivers get more time downfield, that's where a bust happens as the MSU cornerbacks live in one-on-one coverage.
NM: How is Michigan State trying to avoid any sort of letdown this week? What's the vibe around a 9-1 team (jealous)?
MW: The vibe is a lot of confidence and belief, which has been a storyline this week thinking back to September and how much different this team is and the way questions are asked in press conferences, etc. The one thing that I keep waiting for is the offense to stub its toe. It isn't very explosive, but grinds out long drives and chews up clock while putting up points. There still feels like that potential exists each Saturday.
I do think the Spartans are trying not to look ahead as they have all but locked up the Legends Division now. That's tough but they know Northwestern has been a tough game each season since Mark Dantonio came to East Lansing.
NM: With this defense, the offensive line hardly gets mentioned, but they've clearly helped to spark the run game and protect Cook. Who anchors the group? Do you see them manhandling the NU front?
MW: The key to the offensive line, to me, is left tackle Jack Conklin. He is a redshirt freshman that walked on last fall and went on scholarship in the spring. This is the first time MSU has had a true left tackle in a while and that allowed others to move to their natural spots on the line.
The key though is left guard Blake Treadwell. He has been the best lineman for MSU this season and also was named a captain. So he is the anchor, but I think Conklin is a big reason why they are having success. Their method for success has been to wear teams down throughout the game. Once the game hits midway through the third quarter, the line generally is winning and grinding out running room for Jeremy Langford. I assume Northwestern will try to implement similar blitzes to Nebraska, which got to Cook more than any other team, and get some hits on him early as he settles in.