It only takes one truly great game to change a team.
The Nebraska Cornhuskers entered last Saturday’s showdown versus the Michigan State Spartans as one of the less respected defensive teams in the country. Over the course of the season, they ranked anywhere from the mid-60s to the mid-90s in most major national statistical categories. They had an undeniably suspect secondary and a weakened set of pass-rushers that couldn’t sack a quarterback if you gave them a five second head start.
Of course, that was before they held the Spartans to a season-low 187 yards of total output. Amazingly enough, holding quarterback Kirk Cousins to a mere 35 passing yards through three quarters and 86 total yards for the game resonates with the general public. And snapping B.J. Cunningham’s 41-game streak of at least one reception – folks take kindly to that as well.
"I think they saw today what we're capable of doing when we're right," head coach Bo Pelini said after the game.
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All snarkiness aside, the Huskers did something pretty special against the Spartans. They collided with a top-10 ranked team head on and they made the other team have to adjust. The strategized against Michigan State better than anyone had all season long. They befuddled, irritated and ultimately shook Cousins to a point where he almost didn’t look like the same guy who led the Spartans to a miracarious victory over the Wisconsin Badgers a week earlier.
The key to Nebraska’s defensive dominance was the play of the safeties, who essentially committed to pass protection for the duration of the game. Whereas in weeks past the secondary was the biggest liability that the Huskers had, that hole was patched up by the time Cousins could get around to trying to exploit it.
Ideally for the Spartans, Cousins would have acknowledged that the aerial assault wasn’t working for them and tried to push the run – but he didn’t. Running backs Le'Veon Bell and Edwin Baker finished with 58 and 38 yards respectively, but neither got the amount of action they realistically should have.
That was all part of Nebraska’s strategy, though. The coaching staff understood that if they could get a mental breakdown from Cousins, the rest of the Michigan State offense would collapse accordingly. And, ultimately, it all went as planned.
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Two weeks ago when the Huskers beat down the Minnesota Gophers, we remarked that while the defense was seemingly looking a little better, it was too early to say for certain if the changes would stick. On Saturday after Nebraska made short work of the Spartans, Austin Cassidy confirmed that his team had in fact worked out the kinks of their defense during the week off prior to that Minnesota game.
"Physically and mentally we were able to regroup," Cassidy said. "We were able to step back as a unit, as defensive backs, and focus on ourselves. That helped people get a better grasp on what we're trying to do."
No kidding. The Huskers defense from the last two weeks is nothing like the one that gave up 48 points to the Wisconsin Badgers about a month ago.
Are two good games really enough to say that it has changed, though?
Let’s let defensive end Josh Williams take this one:
"We turned the corner," Williams said. "Now we can actually say we're Blackshirts."
Well, there you go.