Coming off their dramatic Overtime thriller over Wisconsin, the Spartans return home to host Nebraska at 3:30 on Saturday afternoon.
Only circumstance could force the Spartans out of their failed strategy that had produced zero Touchdowns in the previous 8 Quarters. Down 10-3 with 6:06 to go, a “light bulb” moment was practically forced on the Offense, and Andrew Maxwell was unleashed to take over. From his 25, Maxwell hit 7 straight passes to bring MSU down to the Badger 18. As the series developed, you could feel Camp Randall Stadium getting anxious and uneasy about this totally different looking attack. The Spartans flipped to a pass based attack, and had suddenly moved the football down for a shot to tie the game.
Before that drive, the Spartan Offense looked helpless. They had run it a stubborn 25 times for 64 yards (taking out the sacks). That’s an average of 2.56 yards per carry, and couldn’t be much further from effective, let alone “Pound, Green, Pound.” It almost looked like a desperate cry for an intervention. Thankfully the game’s final drive didn’t give MSU much of choice, they had to go to the air, and the entire Spartan Nation was thrilled to see them try a different approach. They had to flip the script, and Maxwell put them in position to strike. Then he took a big step forward as a Quarterback.
Andrew Maxwell has been described as a better runner (though not a running Quarterback) than Kirk Cousins, but so far he’s looked either overly hesitant to run the ball or has lacked the field awareness to identify about 10 prime running opportunities earlier this year. On 2nd and 6 from the 18, he finally took off and went 7 yards for the huge 1st Down and another “light bulb” moment in the Offense’s drive of the year.
After Le’Veon Bell ran for 6, which was set up because the Badgers were forced to respect the MSU passing game that had dominated the drive, Maxwell couldn’t quite find Dion Sims in the End Zone. MSU was left facing “2-Down territory.” Maxwell calmly took the 3rd down snap, gave the shovel pass room to develop, and then slipped it to Bell who went in for the score. It looked like a perfect play call and perfect execution.
Earlier on, highlighted by one the worst drives in modern MSU history, the Offense looked to be at their worst of the Dantonio era. Yes, even worse than they did against Alabama. On that day they were melted by a Tide of NFL talent. Wisconsin’s Defense is very far from that. Now MSU must build on that final drive and take it into November.
Hopefully the Spartans’ overly stubborn “run first” approach died on the field in Madison for the year. MSU cannot succeed forcing the run against a decent Defense. Not this year, and certainly not against Nebraska. It failed so severely before the final drive against Wisconsin that even the Cheese ripening across the Dairy State thought it was enough already. My 5 year old niece, who loves the Sparty mascot but doesn’t know much about football yet, even asked why the Spartans kept running it so much when it wasn’t working.
So Spartan Nation asked Mark Dantonio if their success moving the ball through the air on the final drive might shift MSU’s Offensive strategy the rest of the year to a “pass first” approach. “Well I think we want to stay balanced…but it could,” he said briefly in what might have been his most interesting answer this year. That was far from what Dantonio had said earlier this year, and gives hope for a needed adjustment.
If the Offense gets out of its own way and follows its biggest success of October, they’ll probably have a real shot to play with Nebraska this time. If they can adjust, which is not as hard as some might think, they can become a pass first team that supplements with the run effectively. They can find a good balance with that approach, and they can be as successful as they were on their best drive of the season. If they revert to forcing the run, however, you can expect about the minimal production we’ve already seen.
The players gave us their opinion of flipping the script during that final drive and Overtime. They were not going to find the End Zone to win the game with two more runs. Now it’s up to the MSU Coaching Staff to make the move. If “it could” becomes a reality, running the table (including the Bowl) could become one too.
Few thought any Defense could shut down the Badger running game like we saw on Saturday. Coming into the game, Bucky’s backs were back to rolling up more than 200 yards like it was no big thing. Wisconsin had scored more than 30 points in five straight games. Against MSU, they took it forward only 54 yards on 30 carries. That’s it, 1.8 yards a rush. What else do you need to say about the Dawgs domination in Madison.
They did much more, however. They got after the Wisconsin signal callers, knocking Joel Stave out on the first drive of the 3rd Quarter, and later chasing Danny O’Brien (who’s not another Russell Wilson) around looking for an exit ramp back to Maryland. Will Gholston was flying around, getting to the backfield, and knocking passes down. Marcus Rush was battling through holds, swimming around the vaunted Badger Offensive Line, and disrupting the plans of Brett Bielema and company. Led by Max Bullough, who will “play on Sundays” according to Nebraska Head Coach Bo Pelini, the entire pack of Dawgs were consistently in position to make plays and essentially shut down Bucky Badger.
It should be a while before Wisconsin’s Offense is again shut down like that in Madison. This wasn’t the blundering bunch of Badgers seen earlier this year, this was the attack that looked back in gear for another Big Ten Championship run. They still are, despite the loss to MSU, but had no viable answers for the swarm of the Snarlin’ Narduzzis this time around.
This was a total group effort to limit Wisconsin to just 171 yards of total Offense. That effort, including a big game from Taiwan Jones, needs to carry over this week because Nebraska is a high powered attack. “They have so many weapons,” Coach D simply put to Spartan Nation earlier this week when describing perhaps the best Offense in the league.
Nebraska played their best Big Ten game to date last November at home against MSU, but their Offense wasn’t as refined as it is this year. Taylor Martinez is the improved looking Quarterback for Bo Pelini, but he’s far from a perfect passer and decision maker. The key to shutting Nebraska down is tackling well and getting to Martinez. If he’s feeling pressure, his passes can start to veer off target. If the Spartans don’t tackle well, it will be a long day with Taylor Martinez, Ameer Abdullah, and Rex Burkhead (if healthy) running hard and often to the last of Daylight Savings time.
Nebraska has great speed, power, and a host of athletic players that are dangerous in space. The Spartan Dawgs will have to be strong at the point of attack in order to set up an effective tackling effort. It will be hard to match the performance of Wisconsin, but if they can measure up in execution and performance, MSU will have a chance to stay with the Huskers.
This unit was mostly out of the spotlight against Wisconsin. Dan Conroy tried and hit his only attempt from 34-yards. The kick return game wasn’t much of a factor, but A.J. Sims had better figure out when to field punts and when to fair catch them pretty fast. Otherwise, he’ll likely be replaced by the sure handed Le’Veon Bell. And Mike Sadler engaged in a pretty extensive punting duel with the Badgers fine punter Drew Meyer, who probably edged him out on the day.
This unit has yet to be a clear strength for this team, and doesn’t look like they can necessarily put MSU over the top in any of the final three games. They need to focus most on being fundamentally sound to avoiding the killer mistake that can tip the balance in a close game. Make no mistake, Special Teams could well be a deciding factor in another game this year.
Nebraska will bring all-everything Punter, Kicker, and Place Kicker Brett Maher to town this Saturday. Earlier this year Bo Pelini told Spartan Nation without hesitation that Maher “is a weapon” for his Huskers. For a Defensive Coach to say that about a Kicker says something. The decorated Maher showed up big last Saturday against Michigan nailing 3 Field Goals (19, 51, 31) and punting effectively, including working in some rugby style kicks. He should be a significant factor again this week.
Even after the Spartans drove into the Red Zone on their final 4th Quarter drive, it was still tough to see them pulling out the minor miracle. MSU had been so stubborn and ineffective for more than 50 minutes, you just couldn’t imagine the Offense would suddenly find something that good to snatch one from the Badgers in Madison. Win number 5 changes things for this team. The Spartans can reasonably look forward to another Bowl trip (likely to the Gator Bowl) and now have something to build on as they strive to play their best ball in November again.
That’s no sure thing though. The Offense needs to stick with the strategy that got them the win late in Madison, assuming the Huskers’ Defense gives them the opportunity. They need to shift to a “pass first” Offense and trust that doing so will still yield enough opportunities to run the ball. They may even run it with more success. After Coach D’s comments to Spartan Nation earlier this week, the staff finally may be ready to move forward in that direction.
If the Offense is opened up and actually takes what Nebraska gives them rather than stubbornly trying to force the run, MSU may be able to run the table to get to 8-4. Nebraska ambushed the Spartans last year in Lincoln. Maybe it’s MSU’s turn to stun an opponent for once in 2012. Last year’s waxing didn’t end up impacting the Legends’ Division race, but had to stick with the players left over on this team. And it wasn’t the first loss to Nebraska that’s stuck with Coach Dantonio, as he reminded us earlier this week.
MSU has never beaten Nebraska, but the Spartans have a unique connection to the Huskers’ program success. Bob Devaney was an Assistant Coach under Biggie and Duffy before leaving to become a Head Coach at Wyoming, and then going from there to Nebraska. All Devaney did in Lincoln was go 101-20-2 as a Head Coach, including back to back National Titles for the Big Reds in 1970 and ’71. Then after ’72 he handed off the reins to Tom Osborne while going on to become Nebraska’s Athletic Director. He’s a seminal figure in Nebraska Football, and the fundamental link between these two programs.
History aside, the 2012 Spartans need a command home performance and one more “W” to clinch another Bowl trip. If they can pull it off, they’ll head to the late Bye Week with their first real stretch of momentum this season. That would make final two games on the schedule look a lot better, and give this 2012 team a unique piece of Spartan Football history.
P.A.T. (Perhaps Another Thought…)
- When you’re getting the kind of breaks, calls, replay angles, and more that Notre Dame is getting so this year, you’ve obviously got something special going. Notre Dame isn’t necessarily back, and may never be, but they are having the most special season in South Bend since the dawn of cable television.
- Why is it that the SEC is so desperate for attention? They seem frustrated that TV ratings and overall popularity haven’t follower their success as quickly as they’d hoped for. Now they’re barking that Oregon-USC shouldn’t be airing during Alabama-LSU this Saturday night. Come SECond to none, maybe College Football fans want to see a little Offense on a Saturday night.