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Michigan State DC Scottie Hazelton talks Pitt QB Nick Patti, Bilentnikoff winner Jordan Addison

Even without star quarterback Kenny Pickett, the Spartans defense will have its hands full with Pittsburgh's explosive offense

The Peach Bowl matchup between Michigan State and Pittsburgh lost some of its luster after Spartan tailback Kenneth Walker III and Panther quarterback Kenny Pickett opted out of the game in order to begin preparations for the 2022 NFL Draft.

Without Pickett, Pittsburgh will turn to backup Nick Patti, who has seen limited snaps so far in his career. Patti has one career start under his belt for the Panthers, in 2019, against Delaware. The redshirt junior completed 23-of-37 attempts for 271 yards, two touchdowns and an interception.

Yet, Michigan State defensive coordinator Scottie Hazelton sees similarities between Patti and Pickett, despite Patti’s relative inexperience compared to his predecessor.

“I think that you see a lot of the same things out of him that you saw out of Kenny,” Hazelton said. “He's a decent sized guy. Moves around similar.”

With Patti having played in only 16 games, with just one career start, Hazelton and his coaching staff have had to dig a little deeper into game film to get an idea on the redshirt junior’s abilities as both a runner and a passer.

“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,” Hazelton said. “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.”

For his career, Patti has completed 40-of-62 pass attempts for 458 yards with three touchdowns and one interception. He also has 47 yards and three rushing touchdowns on 13 carries.

“We're really excited about playing him and see how it works.” Hazelton said. “But it was a real deal to be able to say, okay, who is this guy. And he's very similar. So we're excited to see how it goes.”

Even without Pickett, the Panthers won’t be without star power on offense. Sophomore wide receiver Jordan Addison, who won the Fred Biletnikoff award as the nation’s top receiver, will be on the field for Pittsburgh.

“He's an outstanding player. Man, the guy can do it all,” Hazelton said. “You don't win the Biletnikoff without being an outstanding player.”

For the season, Addison has 93 receptions for 1,479 yards with a jaw-dropping 17 touchdowns. The sophomore also has six carries for 28 yards with a rushing touchdown.

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“He's a guy, we need to know where he is and where he's at, because they'll put him everywhere,” Hazelton said. “They'll put him in the backfield and out wide and everything in between. So, we're trying to have some awareness where he is.”

Averaging 15.9 yards per catch, Addison is a big play waiting to happen, and Hazelton said the wide receiver can hurt opposing defenses in multiple ways.

“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,” Hazelton said. “He's not really [like that]. He'll catch an under route and go and he'll catch a deep ball. 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.”

The Spartans will have their hands full with Addison, and Hazelton said MSU’s game plan will start with slowing down the explosive receiver.

“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,” Hazelton said. “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.”

Michigan State’s defense has struggled to defend the pass throughout the season, allowing a nation’s worst 4,052 passing yards (337.7 per game). The Spartans have also allowed 26 passing touchdowns, tied for the 15th-most in the country.

Even against an explosive offense like Pittsburgh’s, who ranks No. 5 in the nation in total yards per game (504.3), Hazelton and Michigan State will try to end the season on a high note on the defensive side of the football.

“It's not just the secondary,” the defensive coordinator 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, understood the thing.”

Hazelton noted that his defensive line and blitzers have to help the secondary out by getting pressure on Patti on dropbacks, and the linebackers have to play soundly against the pass, whether that means getting depth in their zone coverages or sticking with their matchups in man-to-man.

“It's not just a one-part thing,” Hazelton said. “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…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.”

Michigan State and Pittsburgh will kickoff at the Peach Bowl in Atlanta at 7 p.m. (EST) on Thursday, Dec. 30.