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GOTW: MSU @ Nebraska

Legends Division supremacy is on the line this weekend in Lincoln. Let's discuss.

Wrong sport? Whatever, we're not watching either way.
Wrong sport? Whatever, we're not watching either way.

Green Akers: So. What a difference a month and a half make, amirite? When last we commiserated, both our teams looked like fiddler crabs, wielding one impressive claw/side of the ball to bash our foes while kind of hoping that the other, comparatively pathetic side of us wouldn't be enough of a problem to cause our respective downfalls. Man, that was an unwieldy analogy. Kind of like a fiddler crab's giant claw, really. But my point here is, let it never be said that complaining never yielded positive results, right?

I previously lamented that MSU's offense had been so bad, for so long, that it was difficult to imagine substantial improvement from the same players within the same scheme. Well, 5 games later, the offense looks...downright competent! Still not a worldbeater by any statistical measure, and still stumbling into too many 3-and-outs, but if you account for the fact that most of those rankings are over the whole season, and that MSU's truly putrid September thus hangs around those numbers like an anchor, this offense is now a middle-of-the-pack B1G outfit. Jeremy Langford's running well behind a much-improved line, Bennie Fowler and Tony Lippett have become real, live reliable receivers, Connor Cook has cut down his absurd overthrows to merely once in a while, heck, we've even seen tight ends doing stuff of late.

And I hear Nebraska's defense is no longer getting confused with Indiana's, so that's good news right? What improvements have you seen that make your heart soar like an eagle?

Jesse Collins: Well, let's at least start this conversation by level-setting a bit. Nebraska's defense has now looked good for 6 quarters. While that does take us out of Indiana territory, it's also not like we're a top-echelon team by any means. I was happy to see Nebraska do to Michigan what the Spartans did to Michigan. It gave me hope that they can at least function the way you hope them to function against a bad team. Still, you just never know what you're going to get at this point and so I'm cool with kicking back and expecting chaos. Way fun, right?

But to your last question... Nebraska's improvements really start up front it seems. The Defensive Line seems to be communicating and not losing containment. We knew going into this year that the Cornhuskers were young, and that showed its face early and often this season. Going after fakes, losing sight of TEs, getting sucked inside for quick hitters outside. It was all stuff that you knew they practiced, but they didn't diagnose it on the field like a veteran team would. In the Northwestern second half and for most of the Michigan game, the defense finally figured that piece out. They made sound decisions and trusted their instincts. Oh, and the secondary did their job by making sure there weren't open passing lanes to receivers on hot routes. Since Michigan and Northwestern both had mediocre run games going in, I'll defer judgement on what this all means, but it is encouraging. So long as this LB corp keeps maturing, the future looks bright. Just gotta survive this year.

So let's talk about the Sparty resurrection. You talked a little bit about the competent offense. How do you see that playing into what could be the most important matchup of the game on Saturday?

GA: For one thing, being able to run the ball fairly well means MSU doesn't have to try to pass into Nebraska's Cover 2, like they foolishly did in their last trip to Lincoln. I don't view Nebraska's current secondary as being quite as good as they were in 2011, but it's still inadvisable to swim up-current like that. And that's why it's been so important to get the iso and power runs that have always been the theoretical (and now actual) foundation of MSU's offense working better. If the run game can work out 4 or 5 yards a carry on early downs, the play-action that has been so vital to the passing game is more effective. It also feels like they've worked out some nice wrinkles that might be enough to confuse Nebraska's young guys again.

The pocket passing game has improved a lot, but still isn't stellar, so MSU has gone more heavily to the end-around game to get the receivers involved, primarily with freshman R.J. Shelton. You'll also see some option plays with Connor Cook, who isn't a T-Magic type of runner by any means but has enough size and wiggle to force the defense to account for him, and that look has also matured into option pass plays that require multiple correct reads by the defense to be defended correctly. MSU fans love it when we line up and come straight at you, but Warner & Bollman have worked a number of other things into the offense, too. Vivre le #WalrusballRevolution

I think an overlooked reason for the offense's modest revival has been better distribution of touches. One of the biggest problems in MSU's offense last year was that Le'Veon Bell had to do absolutely everything in the run game, and Andrew Maxwell had a tendency to lock onto his primary receiver and forget about the other 2, 3, or 4 guys running routes. This season, more guys have proven themselves capable, so if someone is underperforming or gets hurt, there isn't as much cause for panic.

Jeremy Langford took most of the carries against Michigan, but with two viable other backfield options, the running game can change pace on you pretty easily. There's also a remarkably even distribution of receptions. The top 3 guys- Bennie Fowler, Macgarrett Kings Jr, and Tony Lippett- have 26, 28, and 24 receptions respectively, and 3 other guys have caught at least 10. The Spartans passing game has also gone back to involving the tight ends and fullbacks like it did in Dantonio's first couple of seasons, a change I really like to see. The downside of spreading the ball around is that it's hard to say who MSU's go-to guy is if they absolutely have to make a play, but I'd have to think Fowler is a good bet there. He's always had good size and been great after the catch, and now that he's got the, you know, catch part down, he's showing pretty good chemistry with Cook.

I was truly sorry to hear Taylor Martinez is out for the game this week, and apparently for good. Part of me really wanted this defense to get a shot at leveling the score with him, but it's also unfortunate for a guy's career to end like that, and whatever his shortcomings, it felt like he deserved more. Still, the world keeps turning, and Tommy Armstrong's been serviceable if not a worldbeater while guiding the hospital ward that Nebraska's offense has become. Who's still fit for service, and what adjustments do you expect Nebraska to make to cover for all these injuries?

Jesse: It's going to have to start with Ameer Abdullah. He is putting up some pretty exceptional numbers this season in less-than-wonderful conditions. Running behind what can only be described as a patchwork O-Line, Abdullah has put up the sixth most YPG nationally and outside of Melvin Gordon, he has been the best RB in the B1G this season. It's up to him to be the workhorse on Saturday if Nebraska plans on going anywhere for any amount of points. If he can get some yards on the ground, then Nebraska can potentially open up some plays for both Tommy Armstrong and RK3.

As for adjustments... Well, I think it's going to be pretty simple. Nebraska needs to get out and run, run, run, and run some more. The only way they will beat MSU is if they can establish a semblance of a run game that can potentially open up the screen game and PA game. Now, if you are asking me honestly, I'm pretty nervous about what NU can accomplish against this defense. As I mentioned earlier, the Offensive Line is a mess right now with lots of inexperience showing its face, and with some injuries at TE, WR, and youth at QB, well, I have some doubts on scoring lots of points. I do expect some option schemes with Armstrong, and his knack for the pitch is pretty fun to watch, but that will only be a piece of the puzzle in beating MSU.

But hey, nothing is a sure thing, right? Give me some hope that your Spartans can be beat! Tell me it can be done. Because right now, I just don't see it happening.

GA: Well of course they can be beaten, the freaking Domers already did it. As fearsome as the defense is, there have been moments when they're beatable, and there are basically two ways to do it. The first, which I don't think Nebraska is capable of, is to do what MSU's defense invites you to, and hit the difficult throws down the deep sideline against man coverage. No QB MSU has faced yet this year has been able to do it with much success, and I somewhat doubt that Armstrong or RK3 is capable of it. Still, the ND game showed that if you get the right crew of refs, they might rescue you even if you can't hit the play.

The better, or at least more reliable, way to beat this defense is to do what Indiana, and for a 5-minute stretch Iowa, did: run a relentless hurry-up. Huddling up every play, letting MSU sub in just the right personnel, and giving salty veterans Max Bullough and Isaiah Lewis time to read your formation, make their checks, and align the defense how they want it is inviting failure. IU's 28 points were partly a product of two MSU turnovers that gave the Hoosiers great field position, but they did have a couple of long drives as well when they were able to dictate the tempo. The other thing that helps is breaking off a few big plays so that you only have to beat this D four or five times instead of ten or twelve, but that's true against pretty much any defense. 

Finally, your offensive coaches must be ready and able to constantly adapt. At risk of feeding into the MSU-D-is-teh-best meme that's developed, they do resemble Terminators in that they can learn. Your carefully constructed gameplan will probably achieve some initial success, and logic will tell you to stick with what's working, but if you do that, these guys will know, man. They'll know what you want to do and they'll adjust, probably very quickly, and if you don't have counters ready to go for those adjustments, game over. Game over, man.

Oh, and there's always the possibility that we'll puke up a bafflingly ineffective offensive gameplan, or that Evil Connor Cook will show up and his 3-6 bad overthrows will turn into 12-15 bad overthrows. Yeah, those would be the more likely avenues for a Nebraska win.

From what I've seen, most Big Red fans don't expect to win this one, and a lot of MSU fans are hesitant to predict a win, either. Is somebody sandbagging, or are we both kind of right? What's your prediction for Saturday?

Jesse: I think MSU fans are scared of predicting against history, which is absurd. At this point, Michigan State losing to Nebraska would be a colossal failure by Dantonio and his staff. Nebraska is - as of this morning - down another Guard, and with so many missing parts starting with Martinez on down, well, this shouldn't be much of a game. That is not to say that Memorial stadium + Pelini getting buy in in November + RK3 magic can't happen, but if you were forced to put your life's belongings on a team, it would be stupid to bet on Nebraska. Can the Cornhuskers win? Absolutely. I still don't know if Michigan State has a consistent enough offense to beat teams on the road, and if they get down, I wouldn't exactly feel good about them coming back. Again, that doesn't mean Nebraska fans would be wise to get all arrogant about past performance.

The scariest part of this game is the part where you talked about adaptation. At times our coaches seem to do that, and other times they seem so insistent on the system that you wonder if they're even watching the same game. That will be what keeps Nebraska in the game or leaves them out to dry. To come back against this defense might not be a fun thing to do, especially with no offensive line. Can Tim Beck and company do what it takes to win? That is a question I'm not in a position to answer.

All that to say, I'm going with the Spartans. I have thought about how I could not-ironically pick the Cornhuskers in this one, but it just doesn't add up. Too many injuries, too young and unproven of a defense, and no Taylor Martinez to run around the Spartan defense this season. I'm going to say another low-scoring game with Sparty scoring a late defensive score towards a 20-10 victory.

Finish this thing up. Who you got?

GA: Yeah, all my neurosis aside, I'm still taking MSU in this one. Defense travels well, and I do consider MSU to be the better overall team, especially with the number of backups Nebraska's now forced to play. Scorewise, I'll take MSU, 24-17.