Coming off a 29-6 thrashing of Michigan and then enjoying their second Bye Week, the Spartans (8-1) head to Lincoln to face the Nebraska Cornhuskers at (7-2) at 3:30 this Saturday for control of the Legends Division.
The Spartans ability to run the ball should be the single biggest factor in determining Saturday’s winning team. Earlier this season Bo Pelini was one of a handful of Big Ten Coaches that told Spartan Nation the key to playing winning Defense was stopping the run, pointing to it as the foundation for creating an effective Defense. If the Huskers can stop MSU from getting anywhere on the ground, they will play into their home field advantage and put the heat on the hands and feet of Connor Cook. “They’re going to pressure the Quarterback and try and put us behind the chains, in all circumstances,” Coach D said about the Huskers Defense.
The Spartans Offense was effective, but not very opportunistic in the Michigan game. They missed a lot of chances to build up a wider lead early on. MSU stuck with Jeremy Langford nearly the whole way, even as he struggled to gain more than a couple of yards for the great majority of the day. It was a surprise and disappointment that the bigger and stronger Delton Williams wasn’t worked in more often, especially when it looked like Michigan was too much for Langford to handle.
The Huskers should be better at defending the run in Lincoln than the Wolverines were in East Lansing. If Langford finds the sledding any tougher, the Spartans will need to adjust before it’s too late and may need Williams to be “on” if they’re to get an edge from their running game. “At times we’ve been very good, and there’s been times that we’ve shown our youth,” Bo Pelini told Spartan Nation last week about his developing Huskers’ Defense. “We’ve stayed the course, we haven’t panicked.” This week is his entire team’s biggest stage since their post-season debacles in 2012 that likely cost him an SEC Head Coaching job.
MSU will need another strong performance from their receivers if they’re to get the school’s first win at Nebraska. It’s no time they can afford to drop balls or run routes short of the 1st Down marker when needing to convert. Perhaps no Spartan has bounced back from 2012 like Bennie Fowler. “He’s a go-to guy (and) he’s been a leader,” Coach D told us during the bye week about Fowler’s emergence. After a slow start to 2013, Fowler saw others earn more playing time and his role diminished. “He’s never complained about a lack of playing time,” Dantonio added. “He works harder, and I think that’s an attribute that few people have in this modern day of football.”
Fowler’s caught fire and in position to make November his best month as a Spartan. Tony Lippett deserves a mention too as another Senior who is playing the best ball of his career right now. Passing production will be at a premium this Saturday, especially if you anticipate Nebraska stacking the box to force Cook to try and beat them in that environment. Fortunately the Spartans feature more than a half dozen guys who can get the job done, and aren’t afraid to change it up on the fly. “We’re just going to play the guys who are making plays,” Dantonio laid out.
Connor Cook has seemingly survived the roughest patch of his first year as a starter, but will face something different in Lincoln this Saturday. The Michigan game was a much more personal and emotional game for this team, but Nebraska means so much more. “He’s establishing himself,” Dantonio explained when talking about Cook’s progress this year. Cook’s key stat to date is his 13 to 3 Touchdown to Interception ratio. Cook has looked rather shaky at times, especially earlier this year, but he hasn’t turned the ball over very often. It’s clear that limiting and winning the turnover battle is a major key to Saturday’s effort for this unit. If Cook can play within himself and the Spartans can move the ball on the ground, the Offense can have a decent day against a far from Blackshirt Nebraska Defense that is still a work in progress. “Our Offense is coming and has been improving week to week,” Dantonio summed up. “We’re playing a lot better than we were earlier in the season.”
Minus Taylor Martinez, the Huskers are not without fire power. Ameer Abdullah might be the conference’s best single Running Back, leading an attack that’s averaging 246.8 yards per game on the ground this year. “He does it the right way, and because of that he’s improved,” Pelini said about Abdullah’s continued development. Tommy Armstrong is a Red Shirt-Freshmen Quarterback that’s still a bit of a wildcard because he’s only started a handful of games now. Armstrong is not without talent and physical ability, however, but don’t expect him to be nearly as polished as a Senior Taylor Martinez would be. Whoever the Quarterback, the Huskers will be the Spartans’ biggest running game challenge of the season.
“When you’re up there as high as they are in all the different categories they’re in…they’re as good as it comes,” Pelini said about the dominant Spartans D. About a decade ago, Pelini emerged as the nation’s top Defensive Coordinator, and was even the highest paid assistant in the nation while at LSU. Though the Huskers have strangely struggled on Defense since joining the Big Ten, this Bo knows great Defense. “Their results speak for themselves,” he said. “They play with passion, and that’s where it all starts.”
Make no mistake, this unit will need to lead the way if the Spartans are to notch their first program win in Lincoln, but they cannot do it alone. Their season numbers really are incredible when you think about it, and it’s hard to identify either their strongest or weakest points. These Snarling Narduzzis are rock solid and elite in many ways, but maybe for a couple of unique reasons.
Seven years in now, the Defense’s system is fully ingrained. No player on the roster has really known anything else, and many contributors enjoyed a Red Shirt season to let it sink in that much more. That level of knowledge and experience creates a relative mastery of their craft, especially when a player has passed the 3 year mark in the program. Topping it all off is a cerebral legacy talent, Max Bullough, that gives the Spartan Dawgs that much more of an edge. Bullough is the rare MIKE Linebacker that can make adjustments on the field, often just before the snap, and get the unit lined up in the best collective position to make a play. We’ll talk more about Bullough after the season is done, but you can’t underestimate how his intangibles have elevated this unit to highest level of the sport. “It’s not like any pre-season hype or anything like that, this is for real,” Pelini concluded about MSU’s defensive dominance.
Mike Geiger looks in place to become the next great Spartan Place Kicker. Stepping in to replace Kevin Muma on Field Goal tries, Geiger hasn’t really missed a beat so far. As the Spartans struggled to score Touchdowns against Michigan early, though otherwise dominating the game, Geiger stepped in and produced under pressure. “He goes 3 for 3 in the Michigan game, huge kicks for us, and I think he’s a difference maker for us,” Coach Dantonio told us last week. That’s kind of what the Spartans were expecting from Geiger, even though he’s a True-Freshmen.
Geiger was a top recruit coming out of the Toledo area, and didn’t have to look too far for program with a great kicking lineage. Most Spartan fans already know that the best kicker in the history of football, Morten Andersen, shined for MSU before going on to the highest scoring NFL career of all time, MSU has not been a one-kick wonder. “There’ve been great kickers here really throughout Michigan St.’s history,” Dantonio explained. In recent years the Spartans have sent Kickers like Paul Edinger to the NFL, seen others like Brett Swenson and Dan Conroy receive Big Ten honors, and have featured unique weapons like Kick Off specialist Todd Boleski that could kick off a tee as far as anyone else in the country.
Punters have been a part of MSU’s kicking success when you look back at the likes of Craig Jarrett, his predecessor Aaron Bates, and of course Brandon Fields, the NFL’s highest paid Punter in 2013. Mike Sadler has been busier than Spartan Nation would’ve liked since 2012 began, but has taken advantage of the opportunity to build and All-Conference if not All-American resume this season. As Sadler kicks in the bigger games of November he’ll have a chance to finish off his resume, but more importantly will make his biggest impact on this unit’s ability to give MSU superior field position.
With MSU’s kicking game in good shape, the return units need to focus for this road trip on making the right decisions when deciding whether to field the ball or call for a fair catch. Macgarrett Kings had a little bit of a scare against Michigan that ended up going his way, but it was too close for comfort at this point in the year. You don’t want the Legends’ Division to ultimately be decided on a Special Teams’ mistake. Outside of Sadler’s big fake earlier this year, this unit hasn’t had a signature break out play quite yet. There’s enough talent and speed returning kicks to break one this season still, but opponents have done a better job of keeping the Spartans in check since the all-time return talent Keshawn Martin left for the NFL.
After MSU got done slapping around their overmatched siblings, Northwestern appeared to have Nebraska beaten once again, which would have pushed the Huskers’ backs even further against the wall. Then destiny swooped in and saved Nebraska’s chances of reaching Indianapolis in the form of a 49-yard epic Hail Mary winner. To say that magic moment reenergized Nebraska’s entire season would more than a Bill Murray type understatement. Recognizing the opportunity that win created, the Huskers shut down a woozy Wolverine squad in Ann Arbor to force the issue with the Spartans this week. “The road goes through Lincoln for Michigan State,” Coach D said about this game that will essentially decide the Legends Division representative in the Big Ten Championship game on December 7th.
After MSU, Nebraska only travels to Penn St. (5-4) and then is home for the Black-Friday Corn Bowl against Iowa (6-4). They will be favored in both, with or without Martinez, and especially if they beat the Spartans this Saturday. MSU is at Northwestern (4-5), who’s wheels fell off earlier this season, again. Then they wrap the season up at home with the upstart Gophers (8-2) on Senior Day. MSU will be heavily favored in both games. So the loser of Saturday’s matchup will be practically guaranteed a central Florida bowl game on New Year’s Day.
The matchup’s got added juice because there’s clearly no backing down in either of these teams at this point. MSU is making hay towards the bounce back 2013 they envisioned in the first days of the past January. Nebraska now seems galvanized around their Coach’s publicized distaste for some of the Corn Nation, the loss of their Senior Quarterback Taylor Martinez, and the hand of fate that lifted saved them against Northwestern. These Huskers sense their chance for post-season redemption after being embarrassed 115-62 in two post-season losses last year. Both teams’ years have of built towards this opportunity nicely.
As we talked about earlier, the deciding factor in this one should be whether the Spartans can move the ball well enough on the ground. If MSU can run it well, they should avoid placing too much pressure on the young shoulders of Connor Cook. If Nebraska stops MSU’s ground game early, look for Bo Pelini to throw a flurry of pressure around Cook, and for the Huskers to raise their play in front of the howling Husker faithful.
The Spartans ground game has been making progress since dominating Notre Dame, but now the rubber really meets the road. We will find out Saturday if they were simply beating up on bad competition or priming themselves for a Championship. Playing for these kinds of stakes in mid-November is a select privilege across College Football if you look around. Yet, it’s exactly the kind of game that programs talk about during harsh winter workouts in the dead of winter, and during the countless extra hours of “off the clock” effort spread across the off-season. It took that collective effort for Michigan St. to bounce back to this point after a discouraging 2012, and Saturday night we may find out just how fruitful all of those efforts may be.
P.A.T. (Perhaps Another Thought…)
- Richie Incognito played the dirtiest game of football I can remember seeing one player have in the 2003 Alamo Bowl against Michigan St. Incognito was completely out of control and practically in a rage the entire game, catching the eye of viewers and leaving the ESPN announcers no choice but to address his conduct. The only surprise about him being involved in a serious personal conduct issue is that it took this long to surface.
- When Bobby Williams led the Spartans, he usually explained that their struggles were someone else’s fault. When John L. was at the helm, he was pretty honest in identifying MSU’s issues and took blame for them, but never could find a way to fix them. Mark Dantonio has consistently been able to identify the Spartans problems and fixed them. That’s the ultimate difference between Dantonio’s success and those other disappointments. That’s why I call him “The Fixer” this program sorely needed when arrived back in late 2006.
- The NFL should add another Wild Card team to each Conference’s Playoffs. A Wild Card should not be equivalent to winning a Division, but rather make two teams per Conference eligible to play a true Wild Card Game. The winner of that game will then have earned the right to be on the same level as the Division winners.
- Peter King’s column on having to put his beloved family dog Bailey down after her health became untenable at 14-years old is one of the non-football “must reads” of the season. It also makes you think that America’s most popular game/entertainment product could do more for the treatment and care of Man’s best friend.