Nebraska football fans have been anticipating Saturday’s game against Michigan State with a mixture of excitement and dread. With close wins over Northwestern and Michigan, Nebraska fans are thrilled that the matchup against Michigan State has become a de facto championship game for the Legends Division and a chance to go back to Indianapolis in December.
But Nebraska fans are also dreading the arrival of the nation’s top defense. Nebraska’s offense has surprisingly struggled this season, through a combination of injuries and poor performances. And given Nebraska’s underwhelming performance against Minnesota, and in the first half against Northwestern, fans could be forgiven for being a bit skeptical.
So if Nebraska is to be successful at cracking Michigan State's defense, here are three things it will need to accomplish on Saturday. All stats are courtesy of cfbstats.com.
Nebraska offensive coordinator Tim Beck has a tendency to outsmart himself, trying to play to matchups rather than focusing on the strengths of his unit. Nebraska’s strength is clearly running the ball, with I-back Ameer Abdullah the most dangerous of NU’s offensive weapons. But Michigan State’s strength is clearly in stopping the run.
While the Spartans are No. 1 nationally in total defense, that is on the strength of their dominating run defense. Michigan State is No. 1 nationally in rush defense, allowing only 43.77 yards per game on the ground. In context, the No. 2 team nationally in rush defense allows 78 yards per game. In pass defense, though, the Spartans are “only” No. 3 nationally, allowing an average of 166.8 yards per game through the air.
So, on paper, the way to attack Michigan State’s defense is through the air. But that’s not Nebraska’s strength. Nebraska will likely be starting a redshirt freshman at quarterback. Nebraska’s offensive line has been shredded with injuries. And Nebraska’s primary receiving threats are also struggling to recover from nagging injuries.
Beck’s history suggests he will look at Michigan State’s relative weaknesses on defense and craft a pass-heavy game plan. But he would be better served to maintain a balance in the offense. Yes, Nebraska will likely need success in the passing game to beat Michigan State. But success in the passing game will only happen if Nebraska maintains some commitment to its strength, running the ball.
Hold On To The Ball
Michigan State has been good—not great, but good—this season with turnovers. The Spartans are no. 26 nationally, averaging +0.67 turnovers per game. Nebraska, on the other hand, is no. 85 nationally in turnover margin, averaging -0.33 turnovers per game.
Nebraska’s turnover margin has been hit in the last two weeks with Tommy Armstrong’s struggles, having six interceptions in the last two games. Michigan State will be well aware of those struggles and will craft a defense to take advantage of Armstrong’s inexperience and injured offensive line and receiver corps.
Avoiding turnovers is always important. While the turnovers didn’t ultimately cost Nebraska against Michigan last week, the two turnovers did have a big bearing in the final score.
But in a game like Michigan State, where points and field position will be especially precious, avoiding those turnovers and making the Spartans offense drive the whole field will be even more important.
So, can Nebraska's offense be successful against Michigan State's defense?
Keep Sparty’s Offense In Check
Yes, this really isn’t on the offense, but it will play a critical element in how the game goes on Saturday. Michigan State’s defense is truly impressive, the No. 1 total defense in the country. But Michigan State’s offense is truly ordinary, No. 87 in the country—and that’s compiled against a schedule that is far from challenging.
So Nebraska’s offense is set to face its stiffest challenge of the season against Michigan State’s defense. But Nebraska’s defense, particularly after encouraging performances in the second half against Northwestern and throughout the game against Michigan, demonstrated a new-found resilience. If the Blackshirts can keep Michigan State’s offense in check and keep the score close going into the fourth quarter, the extra energy from the home crowd might give the offense enough of a boost to overcome the Spartans' fearsome defense.
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