There are certain things that you can expect to see when the Nebraska Cornhuskers and Michigan State Spartans clash this Saturday.
For one thing, the Nebraska offense will be what it has been all season long. Quarterback Taylor Martinez won’t magically morph into Tom Brady, but he’ll be able to sufficiently manage the game so long as he gets help from running back Rex Burkhead. If the offense can maintain some semblance of balance so that the Spartans aren’t just able to stack the box against Burkhead -- effectively taking him out of the game -- and then force Martinez to beat them with his arm – the Huskers will be alright.
Michigan State, on the other hand, knows they can count on their defensive unit. Their defense is as stout as they come and currently ranks 2nd in the country in total defense, and 8th in rushing defense. It will aim to completely shut down Burkhead as it’s done with numerous other running backs all season long, and force Martinez -- who ranks 67th nationally in passing efficiency -- to do his worst.
The good news for the Spartans is that they can stop the run. The bad news, however, is that they have no idea if they can get their own rushing attack up and going. Despite being very highly touted going into the year, all of the running backs on the roster have repeatedly flopped in 2011, so much so that the team now ranks last in the Big Ten in rushing yardage.
The opening is there for the Nebraska defense to clamp down on something. The question is: will they actually be able to do it?
Defensive coordinator Carl Pelini is betting the game on Michigan State’s rushing woes being as bad as advertised, but he isn’t tipping his hand. Instead, he made it a point to lower expectations.
"They're a physical running team," Pelini told reporters. "They kind of take what you give them. They're a power running team and teams have been loading the box against them and that's why you see their receivers having success, and I think if you spread out and start to defend the wideouts, then they go back to the running game. So they're a good offense. They're very balanced. You can talk about where they're ranked in the Big Ten rushing, but again they're going to take what you give them and they're not going to try to fit a square peg into a round hole. You stack the box, they're going to throw the ball."
Fair point. So is the Huskers defense adequately prepared to defend against Spartans quarterback Kirk Cousins and his magical Hail Mary arm then? Well, if you believe Pelini, his arm may not be the only thing that Nebraska’s defense will have to keep an eye on.
"He's more mobile than I think you give him credit for," Pelini said. "There's guys who are real fleet guys, running-type quarterbacks, and then there are guys who have a good feel for the pocket and know how to avoid pressure. And that's how I see him. He's not necessarily a guy who likes to get out and run. But he moves his feet and gets out of trouble. They max protect a lot. They keep their backs in. They keep their tight ends and run a lot of 3-man routes, 2-man routes. So especially out of their big personnel it's hard to get pressure on him."
Essentially, Pelini is forewarning Husker Nation that if (read: when) the defensive unit inevitably gives up big plays via the air or ground – don’t be surprised. And unfortunately it perfectly falls in line with the expectations that anyone who’s watched Nebraska attempt to clamp down on the opposition has come to anticipate going into games against potent offenses.
At the end of the day, just as it’s impractical to expect Martinez to morph into some other-worldly being overnight, it’s equally unrealistic to think that the Huskers defense will suddenly be, well, good.
Can it? Sure. Will it?