MORGANTOWN, West Virginia – A year ago this weekend, Bryan Nardo was 196 miles straight north of this campus town on the Monongahela River.
Then as now, Nardo was preparing for a gridiron showdown.
Saturday in Milan Puskar Stadium, OSU’s first-year defensive coordinator will match wits with West Virginia coach Neal Brown in a battle for third place in the 14-team Big 12.
Are those stakes bigger than what Nardo faced a year ago? Intra-city bragging rights. The Gannon Golden Knights vs. the Mercyhurst Lakers, in a Pennsylvania State Athletic Conference crosstown clash. Gannon and Mercyhurst are separated by three miles in the Great Lake city of Erie.
River or lake; Big 12 or PSAC; $60,000 a year for coordinating defenses at Gannon or $650,000 for coordinating defenses at OSU. Nardo said it doesn’t much matter.
“Coaching football’s hard at every level, because there are great coaches at every level,” Nardo said in the joyous OSU team meeting room a week ago, after the Cowboys beat Kansas 39-32. “You’re always going into a game against somebody that understands what they’re doing and understands their personnel.”
That great-coaches-at-every-level theory doesn’t hold with some Mike Gundy critics, aghast that Gundy again would hand over a unit to a Division II coach, as he did a decade ago with Mike Yurcich, straight out of Shippensburg, a member of, yep, the PSAC.
Yurcich’s learning curve was small. His first OSU offense, in 2013, finished third in Big 12 efficiency, ahead of the likes of OU and Texas. By 2015, Yurcich had a big-time quarterback, Mason Rudolph, and the Cowboys were offensive terrors most of Yurcich’s six seasons. Yurcich left for the Texas offensive coordinatorship, and since then he’s held the same job at Ohio State and Penn State. People in high places think the guy from Shippensburg is just fine.
And the early returns on Nardo are promising. The OSU defense (and everything else about Cowboy football) was flummoxed by South Alabama (a 33-7 loss), and OSU gave up a bevy of big pass plays to Iowa State and Kansas.
But the Cowboys also stymied Kansas State, then shut out KU over the final 26 minutes. OSU’s defense has gone against the offenses ranked second (Kansas), fourth (K-State) and sixth (Iowa State) in offensive efficiency, yet the Cowboys still are tied for seventh in defensive efficiency. Right in the middle, with easier offenses awaiting.
“I think he’s on par for what I thought and would expect,” Gundy said. “I think if you asked him, he wishes he would have four or five plays back this year where we dropped coverage. There’ll be a transition and somewhat of a learning curve. I mentioned that before the season. But I think we’re further ahead than the last coordinators we had here.”
True. In Jim Knowles first year, 2018, as Gundy’s defensive coordinator, the Cowboys were eighth out of 10 teams in defensive efficiency. The year before Knowles arrived, OSU was fourth.
Knowles’ final OSU defense, 2021, was one of the nation’s best and the best in the Big 12 in at least a decade. Then Knowles jumped to Ohio State, Derek Mason replaced him and the Cowboys fell to fourth last season.
Fourth in a 10-team league is about equal to sixth in a 14-team league, and Nardo’s defense figures to finish no worse than that neighborhood.
Plus, Nardo’s first defense has massive holes, caused by a transfer portal discrepancy. The Cowboys lost a defensive end (Trace Ford) good enough to be part of OU’s epic goal-line stand against Texas; a linebacker (Mason Cobb) who is Southern Cal’s defensive captain; a cornerback (Jabbar Muhammad) who is starting for unbeaten Washington; and a safety (Thomas Harper) starting at Notre Dame.
The Cowboys did not replenish those defections with similar talent.
But the 37-year-old Nardo is undeterred. Gundy hired him for his knowledge of the 3-3-5 alignment, even if Nardo’s résumé is filled by stops at Missouri Science & Technology, Emporia State, Youngstown State and Gannon.
“I love him,” said OSU star linebacker Collin Oliver. “He’s a great coach. He’s a great friend. Our whole defense has shifted towards him, just really embraced him as a defensive coordinator.”
Oliver said he was undeterred when he discovered Nardo was coming from Gannon. Said he was much more interested in what defense Nardo deployed.
“I was kind of curious what he was about,” Oliver said. “Once I heard what his scheme was, I was pretty locked into it. I embraced it ever since.”
Nardo moved Oliver from a 4-3 defensive end to a 3-3 outside linebacker, where Oliver’s defensive versatility could be better used. And that versatility was on display against Kansas.
Gundy told Nardo the prime directive against the Jayhawks was stopping the run. So Nardo had Oliver chasing KU’s tailbacks and quarterback Jason Bean on option plays.
But after Bean threw four long-distance touchdown passes in the first half, Nardo moved Oliver to his normal slot of blitzing the quarterback or dropping into pass coverage, and KU’s offense soon stalled. Oliver had 2½ sacks and tipped two Jayhawk passes at the line of scrimmage.
Nardo said adjustments hard by Lake Erie are no different than adjustments hard by Theta Pond.
“We knew the issues, we knew what we needed to fix,” Nardo said. “Everyone of our players in the locker room understood what was done. It could be fixed. It wasn’t anything to panic about. We didn’t panic. And the adjustment we made was how could we get Collin Oliver more involved.”
Those kinds of coaching successes will go a long way toward Nardo earning stripes with both supporters and detractors.
But Gundy acts as if he doesn’t even think about from where Nardo came. Gundy said he didn’t do anything different with Yurcich 10 years ago and hasn’t done anything different with Nardo in terms of getting them up to speed with major-conference football.
“I didn’t think about that side of it,” Gundy said.
But Nardo said he’s leaned on his defensive staff for guidance. Joe Bob Clements, Tim Duffie, Dan Hammerschmidt and Greg Richmond. Clements and Duffie are in their 11th Cowboy seasons, Hammerschmidt his ninth and Richmond his sixth. That’s a lot of Stillwater experience.
“I’m blessed to have a staff with some phenomenal coaches on it that are very talented that can tell me when I’m looking at something,” Nardo said. “‘This is how they could attack you, this is what they could use as a weakness.’”
Players say Nardo can get animated at practice and rowdy in the coaching booth during games, but most say he’s unusually calm. Low-key. He certainly comes across that way in interviews. Measured. Cerebral, even.
When Kansas was lighting up the Cowboys in that first half Saturday, Nardo didn’t lose his cool. Not on the headphones. Not at halftime.
“He was the same,” said safety Kendal Daniels. “He was the same guy. He was just trying to figure it out. He knew what was going on and how they were scoring. It was on us. Bad eyes. He really wasn’t panicking.”
And Nardo’s defense rewarded him with a 26-minute shutout that gave the Cowboys a victory over Kansas. Now Nardo readies his defense for a Big 12 showdown against West Virginia.
A year ago, Nardo coordinated a defense against a team from the Mountain State. Nardo’s Gannon debut was a 47-13 rout of the University of Charleston, a Division II school in the West Virginia capital.
No big deal. Football is football, coaching is coaching and keeping a level head goes a long way, whether you’re in the Pennsylvania State Athletic Conference or 11 miles south of the Pennsylvania State line in Milan Puskar Stadium.