You can’t blame the Michigan State Spartans for being shocked on Saturday.
No, not because they ultimately fell 24-3 to the Huskers and essentially gave the latter squad control of their own destiny as far as capturing the Big Ten crown goes.
Rather, they had to have been shocked at the way the script was flipped on them.
Heading into the game, they boasted a top-10 rushing defense in the nation and were preparing to face a one-trick pony offense featuring Rex Burkhead and not much else. All they had to do was stop the run and let quarterback Taylor Martinez do his worst – which in the first half equated to zero passing yards, mind you.
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They couldn’t. Inevitably, Burkhead ran all over them with moderate ease and led his team to victory.
Still, that probably wasn’t the most shocking part of Saturday’s game for the Spartans. They had to have figured that Burkhead, being the really, really good running back that he is, probably had a shot at exploding on them. What they probably didn’t foresee, though, was the re-awakening of a vicious, hard-nosed and extremely smartly-designed Nebraska defense. A defense which ultimately limited quarterback Kirk Cousins to 11-of-27 passing, for a total output of 86 yards and one interception. A defense that coming into the game had been giving up 25 points and in excess of 350 yards per game to the opposition, holding their offense to three points.
Defensive end Eric Martin described Cousins’ befuddlement for most of the game best:
“He was really confused,” Martin said. “You could see.”
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With Alfonzo Dennard flanking B.J. Cunningham for the duration of the game, the wide receiver found his 41-game streak of at least one catch per outing snapped. And without his biggest and most potent target, Cousins got rattled.
“There were plays where there was nothing there, no matter how long the protection lasted,” Cousins said after the game.
Head coach Bo Pelini credits his defensive unit putting the right amount of time and effort into this week’s prepation as key to Saturday’s ultimate victory.
“I told a bunch of the guys on the sideline and in the locker room, I said when you prepare well, it shows on Saturday. I thought that our guys were locked in this week,” he lamented.
“I thought they put their film time in. I thought they played like a mature group today. They challenged people and played with an attitude, and that's what you got to do to play great defense.”
In the end, all of the hard work paid off. And nobody was happier about it than defensive coordinator Carl Pelini, whose unit shouldered the brunt of the criticism for this year not having gone according to plan over the couple of months.
“We’re pretty damn proud of our defense around here,” Carl Pelini said. “Everybody you listened to said, ‘Well, they’re a better defense, they’re a better defense. So I challenged our guys: Go out and show them we’re a better defense. Who knows, in the end, who’s better and who’s not? But today — we played better.”
Can the Huskers sustain the effort they exhibited against Michigan State, and carry it into the weeks ahead? They’ll have to do that and much more to hang with the likes of the Northwestern Wildcats, Penn State Nittany Lions, Michigan Wolverines, etc.
At the very least, thanks to their showing against Michigan State, Nebraska’s defense has proven to itself that it can compete at that level. Whether they are able to continue doing so is entirely up to them.