The countdown to kickoff continues to tick down closer for the No. 10 Michigan State Spartans’ (10-2) and the No. 12 Pittsburgh Panthers’ (11-2) meeting in the Peach Bowl in Atlanta on Thursday, Dec. 30.
In anticipation of the New Year’s Six bowl matchup, Michigan State defensive coordinator spoke to media Monday morning, along with players Drew Beesely, Cal Haladay, Darius Snow, and Xavier Henderson.
Among a number of questions he fielded, the opening one dealt with the big question mark at how to prepare for a quarterback for Pitt who barely played this season, Nick Patti.
“I think that you see a lot of the same things out of him that you saw out of Kenny (Pickett),” Hazelton said. “You know what I mean? He’s a decent-sized guy. Moves around similar. He still breaks — we try to work to find his scrambling patterns, to see what he does and how he moves around in the pocket and stuff like that. It was good.
“He’s got some time in the games this year too. And he throws a good ball and has a strong arm. And so we’re really excited about playing him and see how it works. But it was a real deal to be able to say, OK, ‘Who is this guy?’ And he’s very similar. So we’re excited to see how it goes.”
But Patti is also going to have an elite wide receiver to throw to in Jordan Addison.
To that end, Hazelton believes that
“He’s an outstanding player. Man, the guy can do it all. When you watch — that’s how we always start off, right, as a staff. We always look at the scary things. You go through watch the explosives and you say are there things certain guys do and that’s all they do.
“He’s not really — he’ll catch an under route and go and he’ll catch a deep ball. And he’s really — a lot of their design is to be able to get the ball to him whether it’s short and let him use his athleticism, which he’s very good at, or take shots on you. And, yes, we’re going to try to do some things to help take him away and put people over the top of him or do whatever we can. He’s an outstanding player. You don’t win the Biletnikoff (Award) without being an outstanding player. And he’s a guy, we need to know where he is and where he’s at. Because they’ll put him everywhere.
“They’ll put him in the back field and out wide and everything in between. So, we’re trying to have some awareness where he is. And definitely try to get a situation where we can, hey, the safety knows and whoever is on him knows and we kind of build a package and really started with him.”
Can the Michigan State secondary rise to the challenge, though? It is a big question mark with how bad the unit was this season.
To that end, Hazelton spread the blame around more and offered some interesting points in defense of the entire defense needing to step up.
“I think that it’s not just the secondary, though,” Hazelton said. “Defense is a team thing. I think it has to go all together. Yes, the secondary, we love them to finish strong and be able to say, ‘OK, we’ve got something to hang our hat on. We played the best receiver in the country and we did a great job with him and we limited some of his explosives and we tackled him and drove him.’”
Hazelton doubled down that the defensive line needs to bring more pressure on the quarterback.
“It comes back to the d-line, too,” Hazelton said. “It’s about them, too. It’s not just a one-part thing. We have to be able to get pressure on the quarterback. When we blitz our backers or DBs or whoever is blitzing has to get home. And it’s the thing that we all have to work together. It’s not the guys in the back — we’re not playing seven-on-seven. It’s a deal that our front guys have to understand they’re involved in this, too. The backers, whether they get depth or matching up, they’re involved in this, too, where we say, hey, listen, we need to all work, all three levels of the defense have to work together. And that’s really how you continue to stop the pass. If you have that opportunity.”
The Spartan defense has faced off against some truly elite offenses already this season. Pittsburgh will mark the third top-five offense in the nation in fact. Asked about whether the Spartans can rely on any of that experience, Hazelton believes the defense can.
“You just gotta keep chopping and keep working,” Hazelton said. “And the guys have to understand, and I think we do that, that are we going to give up a play? Sure. Are we going to get scored on? Sure. But that’s something you have to say you have to be able to put it out of your mind go on to the next play. What’s the history of all that? It starts all over. Let’s go. I’m going to quickly learn what I did and how I can improve me.”
Hazelton emphasized the importance of next play mentality for the defense. He pointed out players need to focus on the next opportunity, because “You could give up a big play, then come back and get a takeaway the next play. That’s a successful drive for you on defense. Or you give up a first down on a third down. Well, then you get a tackle for loss on the next play. Well, that sets you up to win the next third down. And I think that we have to continue to build on those things. And when we do have a chance to say, ‘OK, we gave up some points or some yards’ or whatever the case is, and then we scrap back and set up a play to set up the offense so we can score, that’s where you get the team model, that’s why it’s the best sport in the world.”
Injuries also piled up at times on the defensive side of the ball. Hazelton mentioned Simeon Barrow at defensive tackle as a player the coaches look forward to having play again. Some of the other players who were on the field or are coming back have to realize they can play full strength again.
Hazelton said: “As guys — and you’ll see it, too — as guys get healthy, even the guys who are playing, just to be able to say ‘OK. I can actually run close to full speed and I really wasn’t there the last two games of the season. Now I’m actually close to back up to where I was when we started this whole deal in August.’ So we’re excited to see some of those guys.”
However, the defense has to have a next man up mentality regardless.
“We’re hoping to have the guys who are playing are a little bit more healthy than they were as you get through the bumps and bruises of the season,” Hazelton said. “And the guys that were out we’re hoping to gain a couple one or two of them back. But we’re going to have who we have when we get into the game. We’re going to have who we have. And we’re going to play as hard as we can.”
Finally, Hazelton was asked, and offered a few names of younger players he has gotten to see stand out in bowl practice.
“It was a deal where you’d say it was good to see a guy like Avery Dunn or a guy like Derrick Harmon, or some of those dudes up front,” Hazelton said. “See how they progressed and get them back on the field and let them compete against some of our best, to be able to see, as you look through the guys in the back end, say, ‘OK, K.J.’ — just to be able to put different pieces in and let people see…Even a (Ben) VanSumeren, run around, take a bunch of reps, or Ma (Ma’a Gaoteote) run around and strike people and you see him and his development keep growing.”
You can find his full comments, and those of the players, below. Also available is selected footage from the team’s practice yesterday at Mercedes-Benz Stadium and the team’s visit to Atlanta’s Egleston Children’s Hospital.
Scottie Hazelton’s Full Remarks
On Michigan State’s core defensive scheme and how it relates to major college football today, Hazelton stated:
“Yeah, I think we’re really a 4-3 team that plays nickel almost all the time just because of the way that college football has evolved where it’s all speed. It’s all — people are playing with three wide receivers and if you want to be able to match up you have to play with more defensive backs.
“I think you want to give different looks especially with how people are — there’s some teams who don’t care, let’s be real, there are some teams who don’t care because they go so fast they don’t care. For those teams you can line up and you can just play whatever you want.
“The idea of being multiple and showing multiple looks in different coverages and things like that is more for the game, how it’s evolved into being a deal where, ‘Hey, I’m going to get up there and I’m going to look,’ you know what I mean? And now really it’s out of the quarterback’s hands. You don’t necessarily — you have to fool the guy upstairs in the box who is looking at what you’re in, too. And then you have to try to, OK, can you switch the defense, can you do this? Can you show him something, or can you at least fool with the quarterback?
“Those are the things that make you stronger on defense as you get your layers in, is to be able to say, OK, in pre-snap, you have to be able to say, ‘Can the guy upstairs not know what you’re in?’
“If he knows what you’re in, can you at least make it look different for the guy who is under center? Because teams do a really good job having you show your hand nowadays because of the different tempos that they go. ‘Hey, we’re going to go faster, we’re going to go fast, stop, look,’ and all those things. I think that that makes a big difference.
“And we are a four-down team. We’re going to rush four guys the majority of the time and we’re going to bring pressures off that and do all those kind of things. A lot of times the multiplicity comes from the back end. It’s this coverage, but it’s this coverage. As we get farther into the package we’ll layer it even a little bit more as we keep going.”
Drew Beesley’s Full Remarks
Drew Beesley mentioned a few young players to keep an eye on.
“One guy that I’ve gone against a lot during practice is Brandon Baldwin,” Beesley said. “He’s a young guy. He has a lot of upside to him. And he has a lot of good things that he brings to the table. And with a little bit more experience I’m sure he’s going to be a great ball player down the road. And Geno VanDeMark is another guy that I think can really make an impact in the future. He brings a lot of energy to practice, helping the scout team guys get going, bring the juice a little bit. And I’m excited for both those guys down the road for sure.”
However, the goal is to go out with a win. Beesley wants to end the college career for all of the seniors with a win and made that clear.
“Obviously, the goal is to help me and my seniors, fellow seniors, finish out our careers on a high note, and Luke Campbell and Matt Allen and AJ Arcuri and Matt Coghlin, all the sixth-year guys that we’ve been together so long, we always talk about how we want to finish on a high note and we’ll do everything in our power to do so.”
Cal Haladay Full Remarks
As a freshman thrown into the fire of game action so quickly, Cal Haladay admitted, “I think from the first game, definitely nervous and excited at the same time. Now it’s kind of become more like used to the experience. So I think it’s been easier as the year went on for sure. But it’s definitely been an adjustment in the beginning of the year, but it slowly got better and better, I think.”
Darius Snow’s Full Remarks
Darius Snow vividly remembers the first Michigan State related thing he learned as a child growing up in a MSU household.
He recaps, “I learned the fight song when I was 5 (years old). I don’t know why I remember that. I remember the exact story. We were living in Ohio. It was my dad’s last year with the (Cleveland) Cavaliers. I believe we were watching, I forget who was playing, but our basketball team was playing. They won the game. My dad was starting to sing the fight song and he said, ‘You all got to hear this.’
“He taught me and my two brothers at the time the fight song. So I remember that specifically. I mean, growing up, I’ve always been around Michigan State. I’ve always said when I was picking schools, I could definitely see them as a top school, just because I’m so familiar with the school. But it’s definitely something that’s been prominent in my life for a long time.”
Henderson’s Full Remarks
Henderson mentioned that he is still undecided about returning for the 2022 season or entering the NFL Draft.
Dec. 27 Practice
Team Children’s Hospital Visit
Michigan State also visited the College Football Hall of Fame yesterday. The team won won trivia last night, sweeping the week’s challenges and claiming the Bowl Week Belt.