Top assistants Chryst, Narduzzi square off

Pat Narduzzi, left, and Paul Chryst coordinate elite units, which will lock horns in the Big Ten title game. Getty Images

If your team has a head-coaching vacancy -- looking at you, Illinois fans -- you're probably hearing the names Paul Chryst and Pat Narduzzi right about now.

Chryst, the Wisconsin offensive coordinator, and Narduzzi, the Michigan State defensive coordinator, are the two hottest candidates among Big Ten assistants to become head coaches in the coming days and weeks.

Both men have been instrumental in Wisconsin and Michigan State becoming new powers in the Big Ten. Both men oversee units ranked in the top 15 nationally in several major statistical categories (scoring defense, total defense, pass defense, rush defense, scoring offense, total offense, rushing offense). And both should be fielding some calls from other programs.

If you're not familiar with Chryst and Narduzzi, there's some good news for you. They'll be coaching directly against one another Saturday night when No. 13 Michigan State takes on No. 15 Wisconsin in the inaugural Big Ten championship game in Indianapolis.

While Chryst is working on another record-setting season with Wisconsin's offense, Narduzzi's defense has taken a significant step forward this year.

The Spartans' defense moved from good -- it ranked 43rd nationally in total defense and 39th in points allowed last year -- to nationally elite. Michigan State's defense leads the Big Ten in the following categories: rushing defense (102.5 yards per game), total defense (266.7 ypg), sacks (38), interceptions (16) and third-down defense (32.9 percent conversions). Narduzzi's crew has held seven opponents to 17 points or fewer and six opponents to fewer than 100 rushing yards. Michigan State has allowed only eight rushing touchdowns all year and just 30 trips inside the red zone.

"I think he's a genius," Spartans senior safety Trenton Robinson said. "With how we watch film and how he breaks everything down -- him and the GAs and the coaches -- they do such a great job. Every game we go into, even the games that we've lost, we lost on not executing. It's not like bad coaching, play calls or anything, it’s just us missing a tackle or blowing a coverage ."

Narduzzi and the other Michigan State coaches were off-limits to the media this week, but he took some time this spring with ESPN.com to break down the Spartans' approach to defending the power run. Check out the videos here and here. Coincidentally, the opponent in the clips is Wisconsin.

Robinson said he and his fellow defenders are never shocked by a formation or a play an opponent showcases. They've already seen it in practice.

Narduzzi also keeps his players in mind when crafting game plans.

"Nothing's really complicated for us," said Robinson, who is tied with teammate Isaiah Lewis for the Big Ten interceptions lead with four. "He makes it as simple as possible, and if the guys aren't liking something, like a certain play, coach will be like, 'You guys aren't liking this? OK, scratch it. If you're not comfortable with it, we're not doing it.' So he makes sure all of us players are comfortable with the calls that he has. It's a great thing."

Wisconsin's offense has thrived in Chryst's five-plus seasons as offensive coordinator, averaging more than 34 points per game. Last year the Badgers averaged 41.5 points, shattering the team scoring record by more than a touchdown per game. This year's unit is on pace to surpass the mark, averaging 44.8 points a game.

Under Chryst's watch Wisconsin has produced the Big Ten offensive player of the year in two of the past three seasons (running back John Clay in 2009, running back Montee Ball this year). Quarterbacks like John Stocco, Scott Tolzien and more recently Russell Wilson are among the most successful in team history.

"Paul Chryst uses players' abilities as good as any coach I've ever been around," Badgers head coach Bret Bielema said. "As a head coach, you really appreciate coordinators that understand the skill set of your players and how to use them and maximize those skills. Everybody has a weakness, and if you can hide it or minimize it, you're going to be better overall. Paul really does a good job of that."

Wisconsin's offense lacks glitz or gimmicks, and the Badgers make no secret about their intention to overpower their opponents from a one-back set. Although Wisconsin recruits to its vision on offense, Chryst has shown the ability to adjust, especially this year with Wilson, whose skills are unlike what the Badgers typically have at quarterback.

"We'll do some things that will become staples of your offense or of your program," Chryst said, "but each year, you adjust to the players you have."

Chryst played a big role in attracting Wilson to Madison from North Carolina State, and Wilson describes his coach as having "a calmness to him, but a competitive edge that most people can't match."

"He always wants his players to understand the whys of football," Wilson said. "That's what I love. ... I ask a lot of questions."

Wilson admits to peppering Chryst about his past experiences working with quarterbacks like Derek Anderson at Oregon State. Chryst also spent time with Drew Brees during a one-year stint as a San Diego Chargers offensive assistant.

"The value to coaching a lot of different players is it really just reinforces how different each guy is," Chryst said. "It's your job as a coach then to know the player and then adjust. There's a lot of different ways to have success. You realize Scotty Tolzien can have success different than Russell Wilson or Derek Anderson or other guys I've been around."

Chryst's name has come up before at this time of year for coaching vacancies elsewhere. Texas courted him for its offensive coordinator vacancy after the 2010 season, and Chryst was on Purdue's radar to replace Joe Tiller.

Earlier this week Chryst denied having contact with Illinois about its vacancy, and he remains focused on facing the Narduzzi-led Spartans defense on Saturday night.

"You can put yourself into a cocoon," he said. "Who cares what's being rumored about? I've got a job and that's to coach football here at Wisconsin. The best thing you can do is do your job well."

Both Chryst and Narduzzi have done their jobs very well this season, possibly setting them up for better things.