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Are the Spartans starting to realize the loss of Pat Narduzzi on defense?

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This is not your brother’s “No Fly Zone” Michigan State Spartans defense anymore folks. Gone is the reputation that strikes fear in to the heart of every Big Ten team. That’s just a fact, especially when you look at the film of Michigan State’s 2015 defense.

Yet, the reasons seem to be varied. Some believe it’s the personnel gone, some believe it’s just the natural trend of working through many new pieces and things will return to fear-inducing defense soon. Others believe it is just simply offenses catching up to MSU’s defense for a change.

However, few seem to acknowledge the one reason that is most likely — the loss of defensive coordinator Pat Narduzzi.

There is little doubt that the Michigan State Spartans built their national reputation with a scary defense. Along with head coach Mark Dantonio, that reputation was built thanks to Narduzzi.

He’s off to his first head coaching gig at Pitt, and life in East Lansing was supposed to go on as if nothing ever happened. After all, this team has been used to plugging and playing talent at any and every spot. There was also the return of guys like Riley Bullough and star defensive end Shilique Calhoun to spark this defense.

Oh, and MSU didn’t need to go outside of the current coaching staff to make the hire of Narduzzi’s replacement. Instead, it was plug and play for the coaching staff as well, with Harlon Barnett and Mike Tressel stepping up to co-defensive coordinator roles.

Change means differences in style and coaching are going to happen, but given the continuity on Dantonio’s staff, this group was expected to be just fine.

It hasn’t been all things normal in East Lansing though, as the Spartans defense is simply missing something these days.

Take the last two weeks for example, as redshirt freshman Markell Jones of Purdue ripped off 157 yards and two touchdowns on just 22 carries and Rutgers’ star wide receiver Leonte Carroo single-handily kept the Scarlet Knights in the game with seven receptions for 134 yards and three touchdowns.

It’s clear something is missing, and even players are acknowledging the differences happening.

“We were playing the way the Spartan dogs usually play,” said star defensive end Shilique Calhouhn after the Rutgers game. “I think we lost a little bit of our focus. Drives before that kind of got us uneasy about other things.

“Toward the end we realized we could only do our job and trust and faith in our teammates to do what they need to be doing. That’s what happened.”

A Spartans defense losing focus? Maybe chalk it up to some youth on the roster and in key positions. However, that’s never stopped an MSU defense from being sharp, mentally focused and prepared in the past.

Could those just have been blips on the radar? Maybe, however, the year-to-year stats simply don’t lie — this defense just isn’t as good as its predecessors.

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It can’t be a coincidence that this happens the moment Narduzzi leaves. Not acknowledging that as a big contributing factor is just sticking your head in the sand.

Notice that this season is worse than last season’s numbers in all but scoring defense so far. Additionally, the 2015 Spartans defense is worse than the average of every defense put together by Narduzzi.

Coincidence? That’s highly unlikely.

Perhaps things turn around as the biggest games of the season come up against Michigan and Ohio State in the next few weeks. But, unless significant improvement is made this Spartans squad could be in some serious trouble on the defensive side of the football.

Few thought Michigan State would miss a beat with Narduzzi gone, but the numbers and talk of this team indicate something is missing. That one common denominator certainly appears to be Narduzzi’s absence in the locker room and on game days.

Andy Coppens is the Founder and Publisher of Talking10. He's a member of the Football Writers Association of America (FWAA) and has been covering college sports in some capacity since 2008. You can follow him on Twitter @AndyOnFootball

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Report: Danton Cole hired as Michigan State hockey coach

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It took a bit longer than expected, but the Michigan State Spartans have their new men’s hockey head coach. That name should be a familiar one to fans of the program, as former MSU player Danton Cole has been hired. 

The news was broken by SpartanNation.com ($).

Cole comes to the Spartans after heading up the United State National Developmental Team this past season. He is also a former Stanley Cup winner in the NHL, hoisting Lord Stanley’s Cup with the New Jersey Red Devils in 1995.

The Detroit Free Press reached out to Cole, but he did not respond to calls or texts regarding the report from Spartan Nation.

Early on in the process of replacing Tom Anastos as the head coach, Cole had emerged as a real possibility. His name was thrown around behind the scenes, but it took until after the just completed Frozen Four in Chicago this weekend to make this hire.

Michigan State has not officially announced the hire, but our sources have also been able to confirm that Cole has long been the front-runner for the job and has accepted an offer.

Not only is Cole a former Michigan State skater, he was part of the 1986 national championship squad and has extensive ties to the junior hockey game. Previous to his stint at the helm of the U.S. NTDP U-18 squad, he was also the coach for Grand Rapids in the IHL and Muskegon in the USHL.

Those ties to the younger side of the game and the professional ranks added in with his ties to the Spartans program made him a prime candidate for this job.

Former MSU assistant and long-time Denver head coach George Gwozdecky had also been considered a front-runner and it may be interesting to see if he will get involved in this staff in some capacity.

Since his ouster at Denver, Gwozdecky has been the coach of a prep team in Colorado. However, will he want to get back in the college game as an assistant at this point in his career?

Look for the Spartans to make the hire of Cole official sooner rather than later.

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What to expect from 2017 Michigan State Spartans spring football game

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Believe it or not, the Big Ten’s first spring football game is about to commence on Saturday afternoon. It will be the annual Green-White game for the Michigan State Spartans. 

However, this isn’t going to be an ordinary spring game. That is impossible thanks to a lingering sexual assault investigation that has led on an unprecedented media blackout. To say things in East Lansing are tense right now may be an understatement.

What that means heading in to Saturday’s spring game is that those of us in the media literally know next to nothing about this team on the field. Luckily we do know that even with an ongoing sexual assault investigation the show will go on.

Head coach Mark Dantonio made it clear that there was thought of canceling the spring game, but there were other factors like not penalizing those who aren’t under investigation and giving the kids that were scheduled to come in as part of a youth clinic a chance to be a part of this.

So, there won’t be a lot we really know heading in to the scrimmage on Saturday. That doesn’t mean we can’t and won’t have expectations though. Here are three things we’ll expect to see and hear coming out of Saturday’s game.

Speculation Will Run Wild

There is no way to avoid it, speculation is going to run wild about which three players not on the field are the ones involved in the sexual assault allegations. Players aren’t going to be avoiding wearing their numbers and Dantonio has made it clear that there will be a group sitting this game out besides the three being investigated.

News reporters are not NOT going to report on those players who aren’t in uniform. That would be journalistic suicide and a clear dereliction of duty. However, only if the investigation brings up charges will the actual three names be confirmed.

Those of us in the media have the names, but it simply isn’t right or smart to release them until/if they are actually charged with a crime. It stinks that other players sitting out for suspension or other reasons are going to be lumped in to speculation, but it is inevitable when you pair curiosity with a public event like the spring game.

After 14 practices of hiding behind closed doors and not even a single internal production crew allowed around the team, this will be the first time seeing this team. Even if speculation over the three players isn’t the biggest headline, there’s a month or more of built up curiosity regarding the team on the field to deal with.

What fans and the media sees on Saturday afternoon will be the only judgement they can make for an entire offseason. It will certainly all boil down to speculation from here until August at the very least.

Quarterback Battle Takes Center Stage

No single position was as big of a mess in 2016 as that of the quarterback. It is a large part, although certainly not all, of the reason Michigan State limped to its worst record on the field since 2006 when the Spartans went 4-8.

This position may have been better had former walk-on sophomore Brian Lewerke not spent most of the season in a boot after breaking his leg. He seemed to steady the ship, finishing the year completing 54.4 percent of his passes for 381 yards and two touchdowns in four games of play.

Stats can be misleading, and given the multiple-quarterback situation for MSU last season, Lewerke’s stats are exactly that. Dantonio had enough confidence to name him the frontrunner for the starting job in 2017.

That doesn’t mean it will just be handed to him though. Senior Damion Terry seemed to slip down the depth chart quickly last season and this is his last shot. Meanwhile, highly touted redshirt freshman Messiah deWeaver showed some big time promise in spring and fall camp last season.

Given Terry is injury-prone and deWeaver is still learning the offense inside-out, Lewerke seems like the logical choice. But, we haven’t seen 14 practices of work and perhaps Terry has shown the consistency of the Penn State game to wow the coaching staff. Then again, maybe deWeaver has commanded the offense well enough to put himself in the mix given his natural arm abilities?

You can bet that quarterback is going to be talked about one way or the other. Either a starter will emerge or the picture will be blurry and the problems of 2016 could plague this team again.

Is the Defense Back?

The old adage is that a defense is always ahead of an offense at this stage in a season. It’s true to some extent, but given the disaster that was a 3-9 season last year, this offseason isn’t going to be about installing offensive schemes or defensive wrinkles. It should have been (and likely was) all about competition across the board.

Michigan State’s annual spring game also provides for some of the best on-field competition we see every year. The captains picking players and the competitive nature of the game lends itself to being intriguing.

That also means we’re likely to get a good idea of just how competitive this defense looks after it got beat up time and again last season. Plenty of new faces will be in new places thanks to graduations, early NFL draft entry or transfers. Can this defense show it is on the road to becoming the dominant group we’ve been used to seeing under Dantonio?

Perhaps the biggest thing is to know that there is a clear-cut leader or three emerging from the spring to bring this unit together. If the spring game doesn’t show that, maybe it is time to worry about the Spartans ability to bounce back immediately this season.

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Dantonio won’t put Michigan State football ahead of seriousness of sexual assault allegations against players

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Michigan State Spartans football will come out of the dark and play football in front of other people for the first time on Saturday in the annual Green-White spring game. 

On Tuesday, head coach Mark Dantonio spoke to the media for the first time in a long time. There were no questions about what has been happening on the field, and given an ongoing sexual assault investigation, that shouldn’t be surprising.

It was also just how Dantonio would have it, as he made it abundantly clear just how serious he and the entire athletic administration is taking this case.

At one point Dantonio noted that talking about “who would be the starting quarterback” just didn’t seem right considering the seriousness of what is happening off the field.

Unlike the Baylor debacle, Dantonio and Co. have struck the right tone here. It is clear they are serious about the situation at hand and won’t put football in the spotlight until all of this gets resolved.

It was also clear that Dantonio and Co. fully expected this investigation to have been completed by now. Otherwise, why wait nearly a month after releasing a press statement to come and talk about an investigation that is still ongoing.

That is something that could’ve been done weeks ago had there been any clue this investigation would be dragging on to this point. It also could’ve meant that this press conference could’ve been about what to expect from his team on Saturday.

As for that resolution, no one seems to know when it will actually come. It is all in the hands of the local district attorney’s office. Once the decision, whether to charge or not, is made, Michigan State football will get back to talking about football again.

Until then, perhaps Saturday will help the players showcase the chemistry that Dantonio talked about emerging thanks to this awful situation.

Just don’t expect Saturday to prove who is or isn’t under the cloud of investigation, as Dantonio hinted that other players besides the three suspended amidst this sexual assault investigation won’t be participating on Saturday as well.

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It is March, which must mean Michigan State is awake

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Michigan State is known for its exploits in the Big Ten and NCAA Tournaments. That is no different this year as this young team has suddenly grown up.

Michigan State was on the bubble, but not really on the bubble entering the Big Ten Tournament.

Tom Izzo had his team play an extremely difficult schedule and pick up several nice wins. But the Spartans lost their fair share and were not in their familiar position. Their 19 wins were the fewest for the Spartans since the 2004 season. And, despite finishing fifth in the conference, Michigan State’s 10 conference wins are the fewest since 2011.

The Spartans entered the Big Ten Tournament in and likely in even with a loss in the second round Thursday. But still a bit uneasy. Michigan State’s success in March is well documented and this is, quite simply not that team.

Tom Izzo has led a young team with a lot of freshman who had to learn the ropes in the Big Ten.

There were growing pains and uncertainty.

This is March. This where Spartans mature. This is where Tom Izzo makes noise. And even this young Michigan State team is not going to do that legacy wrong.

Penn State upset Michigan State earlier in the season. The Nittany Lions never got the opportunity to do so again. Tom Izzo worked his magic for the tournament and had Michigan State playing up to tits fullest potential. The Spartans, facing a Golden Gophers team the Spartans have beaten twice already this year in the quarterfinals Friday, suddenly look like they could make some serious noise.

The damage to Penn State in Thursday’s second round matchup at Verizon Center was devastating.

Michigan State won comfortably 78-51, holding Penn State to 29.1 percent. The Nittany Lions fell behind by 18 at halftime and never made a serious run in the second half. The Spartans toyed with their opponent all game long.

Freshmen Nick Ward and Miles Bridges each had 15 points and nine rebounds. Michigan State had 19 assists on 28 field goal makes, hitting on 49.1 percent of the team’s shots. The Spartans made 10 of 22 3-pointers. Tum Tum Nairn recorded nine assists.

Michigan State dominated the game thoroughly. The Spartans dominated in the way they envisioned winnig games earlier in the year. Michigan State had seemingly grown up.

This is what Tom Izzo teams do. They peak in March. They thrive in these tournament settings. It is hard not to have that familiar feeling when it comes to the team wearing green in March during the Big Ten Tournament.

Michigan State does this seemingly every year. It really should not be a surprise.

It is a testament to Izzo’s coaching every year. His failures in March — like last year’s surprising first-round exit — are few. And Michigan State tends to thrive as the underdog.

There were plenty doubting whether Michigan State could grow up in time to performe this March. Penn State is not the strongest opponent. But it was hard not to be impressed.

And when it comes to the NCAA Tournament next week, Michigan State is a team no one wants to see.

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