Most avid fans of Ohio State football know Michigan football has long made a living off talent from the Buckeye State. Mark Dantonio has taken up the practice at Michigan State over the past seven years, too, but that’s not all.
Turns out the Spartans’ defensive strategy is a direct import from Ohio as well.
Dantonio, of course, first became well known nationally when the defense he coordinated at Ohio State was an integral part of the Buckeyes’ 2002 national championship season. Dantonio, a Zanesville native who was brought to Columbus by Jim Tressel in 2001, moved the Buckeyes from the imposing, press defense installed by Fred Pagac Sr. in the late 1990s to a scheme built around more zone concepts, though pressuring the quarterback was a key for both men.
In building his program in East Lansing, Dantonio has borrowed plenty of methods from Tressel, but the style of defense the Spartans play is not one of them. Dantonio found the need to evolve or get passed by as spread offenses grew from changes of pace to the norm across the country.
“I think things have changed,” he said earlier this week in Chicago during Big Ten media days. “When I was defensive coordinator at Ohio State, things were moving in this direction, but you have a couple teams that were playing — Northwestern was doing a lot of different things offensively. A lot of people were more typical, but the trend has been the no-huddle offense that you see Ohio State run and maybe other programs run (now). So you’ve got to evolve, you’ve got to tweak things, so even though we were a big 4-3 defense in Columbus, a big zone-pressure team when I was there, we’re still a big zone-pressure team and still a 4-3 team but it’s different.”
What sets the Spartan defenses apart from Dantonio’s Ohio State defense is primarily the extensive use of Cover 4 or “quarters”, a practice Dantonio attributed to the man who became his defensive coordinator when Dantonio left Ohio State to take his first head coach job at the University of Cincinnati in 2004: Youngstown native Pat Narduzzi.
“A lot of that, the majority of that is Pat Narduzzi and his defense. We got together in Cincinnati, we combined the two when I was the head coach and it has just gradually evolved more and more toward his way. He’s the defensive coordinator. I’m a defensive coach and I’m gonna know what’s going on, but he’s the defensive coordinator and it starts there.”
“Everybody played Cover 4. We played Cover 4 (at Ohio State), but the Cover 4 being the base is more from (Narduzzi). Cover 4 is a very — I always joke with him that’s the mother of all coverages. Because it is Cover 4, it’s quarters, but there are a lot of tweaks within it relative to what’s going on offensively. There are a lot of different ways you can tweak it and play it, and we do all of those. So it’s Cover 4, but there may be 10 different variations off of it.”
In an ironic twist, Cover 4 was a big part of Pagac’s original “Silver Bullets,” and Ohio State spent this offseason installing a defense based on the scheme, one expected to resemble what Dantonio and Narduzzi have practically perfected during their building of Michigan State into a team that knocked the Buckeyes from the ranks of the unbeaten last year and claimed the Big Ten title most assumed would be Ohio State’s for the taking.