The Nebraska Cornhuskers did more on Saturday than just mercilessly pummel a Michigan State Spartans team that came into the game on a hot streak and widely regarded as one of the top squads in the nation.
As they imposed their dominance on the opposition over the course of four quarters, the Huskers also showed one and all precisely why they were ranked so highly in the preseason. Something that had gone forgotten over the course of the last two months.
Any given college football campaign is a long and strenuous journey. There are always going to be bumps in the road, unexpected collapses, and surprisingly efficient wins. The important thing is to say even-keel throughout, not get rattled and improve as the year progresses.
That’s exactly what the Huskers have done.
With their 24-3 win over the Spartans, the pride of Lincoln showed one and all that despite all of this year’s hardships, the ultimate prize is still within grasp.
Here is the good, bad and ugly from the week that was in Nebraska football:
"I think our swagger is coming back for our defense," cornerback Alfonzo Dennard told reporters after the game. "I think everybody was doubting us, so we were just trying to show the world that our defense is back."
All season long, one of the undeniable weaknesses that everyone knew the Huskers had was their strangely inept defense – particularly the weak secondary. Opposing teams like the Wisconsin Badgers exploited this weakness to maximum potential, and ultimately came out victorious because of it. Against the Spartans, however, Dennard and defensive coordinator Carl Pelini decided to take a stand.
Michigan State’s star wide receiver B.J. Cunningham came into this weekend with a 41-game streak of at least one catch per outing. He was held without a single reception against Nebraska. His ineffectiveness ultimately led into quarterback Kirk Cousins throwing a measly 11-of-27 for 86 yards, no touchdowns and one interception.
Needless to say, the defense (and especially the secondary) was exceptionally great this weekend.
As was the case last week, singling out the bad in as completely dominant an outing as the Huskers had comes off as nitpicky. Too bad.
The offense was still not functioning as well as it had in games past this week. It ultimately ended up being masked, though, by running back Rex Burkhead continuing to be the best and most underrated running back in the Big Ten and the defense’s stellar play.
Going into halftime, quarterback Taylor Martinez had completed only one pass for zero yards. He had also thrown for one interception. As a team, the Huskers had zero passing yards through the second quarter.
Burkhead, for his part, had 50 yards and a touchdown as the team headed into the locker room.
Look, Martinez doesn’t need to put up stellar numbers. He doesn’t need to be flashy, or particularly efficient, or anything of the sort. His tasks are two-fold: he needs to not throw interceptions (or fumble) and he needs to take a bit of pressure off of Burkhead.
Even though Burkhead finished with 130 yards on the day, he did it on 3.7 yards per carry. That low total signifies that he had to work hard for nearly all of those yards, and the reason he had to work hard is because Michigan State didn’t respect the pass.
On the Huskers’ first quarter touchdown drive, Burkhead carried the ball five times for 18 yards. In the third quarter, as Nebraska marched towards its second touchdown of the game, Burkhead carried the ball seven times – with none of the runs exceeding six yards.
This wears down Nebraska’s gritty, consistent weapon, and it leaves him vulnerable to at best wear and tear and at worst injuries as the year proceeds.
There was no ugly in this game. The Huskers came, saw and conquered against a team that was riding high from the week before. They established themselves a power to be reckoned with in the Big Ten, and they’ve lived to fight another day for the conference’s grandest prize.
Offensive and defensive holes can be fixed, but a second loss in the standings would’ve caused irreparable damage to Nebraska’s season.