The Nebraska Cornhuskers have had some pretty important games throughout 2011, but none more so than this weekend’s epic Big Ten showdown versus the Michigan State Spartans.
Coming into this outing the Huskers are flying high, fresh off of a statement win against the Minnesota Gophers which some them beat down their opponents in a 41-14 massacre. In what some (read: we) described as the squad’s more complete victory of the year, Nebraska showed off just how potent of an attack they boast when the offensive and defensive units are firing on all cylinders.
It all started, as it usually has this season, with the offense as quarterback Taylor Martinez put up a quietly efficient outing. His numbers didn’t jump off the page by any means, and the defense he was toying with certainly wasn’t one to write home about, but for the day he finished 13-of-22, with 161 yards through the air and a single passing touchdown. Most importantly, though – zero interceptions.
Look, Martinez is what he is. He’s a great rushing quarterbacks (6th in the conference with nearly 91 yards per game) and can avoid the pass rush sufficiently. He doesn’t have great accuracy, and the fact that he ranks 67th in the country in passing efficiency tells you everything you need to know about his consistency on that part of offense. Nevertheless, so long as he can avoid turning the ball over and manage the game effective -- which he’s proven time and time again that he can -- the Huskers will be fine.
And part of the reason that they’ll be fine without an amazing passing game is because they have an amazing running back in Rex Burkhead, and an ever-improving Nebraska offensive line. Burkhead, for his part, is averaging just over 107 rushing yards per game – good for 4th in the Big Ten. He also has 10 rushing touchdowns on the year, and is doing damage against opposing defenses at a 5.7 yard per carry clip.
In large part due to Martinez and Burkhead’s affinity for running the ball, the Huskers became the top-ranked rushing team in the Big Ten this season.
The Spartans, for their part, know exactly what they’re getting into this weekend. Their defense is battle-tested and has developed a certain propensity for adjusting to whoever they’re playing on any given week.
"They will get in regular formations, the tight ends, flankers and I-backs," Michigan State head coach Mark Dantonio told reporters. "And in some ways, I can look at that football team and look at the Nebraska team we played in '95 and '96 — great tailback and a great runner, running different option things in there. They will get in bone sets with Burkhead and two tailbacks and create triple-option and double-option type things. They will be in one-back sets and do some of the things that you see that Michigan does. And they will also do some things that are unlike any other people that we play.
"So they create problems with what they do, there's no question about that. There will be a lot of different technique work and schematic work defensively in terms of how we are going to defend option-type football. It's assignment-based football."
It’s no accident that Dantonio’s bunch currently ranks 2nd in the country defensively.
With the Michigan State defense zeroing in on forcing Martinez to pass and avoid handing the ball to Burkhead, the Huskers will have two options: get the aerial attack working or lock the Spartans up defensively
The latter is easier said than done.
So far this season Nebraska’s defense has been shockingly ineffective compared to years past, and the injuries that it has sustained over the last two weeks won’t help the cause. Essentially, the defensive group is composed of Lavonte David, Alfonzo Dennard and a lot of spare parts who work some days and don’t work others. Sure, Austin Cassidy made the heads-up play of the game versus the Gophers one week prior, but can he really be counted on for an encore this weekend?
And therein lays the rub for the Huskers. Theoretically, they have the pieces to lock opponents down. That’s why folks ranked their defense so highly during the preseason, despite the pieces lost in the secondary. It’s mostly just been a matter of the unit not living up the hype, with some unfortunate but typical injuries derailing the proceedings further.
Lucky for Nebraska, Michigan State’s running game hasn’t been particularly spectacular in 2011 either. Currently, the Spartans rank dead last in the Big Ten as far as rushing offense, and that’s a big part of the reason that quarterback Kirk Cousins has had to pull so many rabbits out of his hat. If Nebraska’s defense can continue to keep the Michigan State run attack bottled up, all the while slowing down Cousins, and simultaneously making sure that this doesn’t happen to them, they may just escape with a victory this weekend.
Nebraska and Michigan State kicks off at 12:00 p.m. this Saturday.