Scouting Report and Prediction: Michigan State (8-1 5-0) vs. Nebraska (7-2 4-1)
A look at this week’s opponent…
The Cornhuskers host Michigan State this weekend at historic Memorial Stadium in Lincoln, Nebraska. The Huskers are decimated by key injuries with a coach that many, including this reporter, believe will not return for 2014. They have a solid defense and the Big Ten’s best RB, but is that enough?
MSU head man Mark Dantonio has NEVER hid his admiration for the great legendary Mount Rushmore of Coaches Tom Osborne and what Nebraska stands for. He told me this week when I asked about the program in Nebraska, “Well, they’re the only game in town really. In the state of Nebraska there are no pro sports. That is it. And it’s been established. It’s a well‑established program from the former years as we just talked about, and I think their people are passionate about it. They grew up young, rooting for the University of Nebraska, and have stayed the course. So they’re going to fill their stadium. They’re going to put now 92,000 in there. It’s going to be an exciting crowd. I think they’re football fans. I think they’re good people, just like we have good people.”
When MSU has the ball…
Michigan State has a major advantage in this football game. Both teams have young QBs, but Connor Cook doesn’t have to win this game for MSU. He is steadily improving, but the Spartans will not look for him to throw for 400 yards or run for 100.
Cook has to manage the game. The Spartans OL is among the best in the conference and the Spartans need to establish that. I fully expect Nebraska to bring pressure and nearly mimic the MSU game plan on defense.
Starting senior RT Fou Fonoti said of the Nebraska attack, “They definitely have a group of guys up there that’s definitely getting the job done. No.44 defensive end, No.9, I remember them, but they do a great job, just a lot of stunts, a lot of movement up there, a lot of very shifty guys, use their hands well. We definitely take that as a challenge to go out there and just keep Connor safe.”
Cook needs to be accurate. He has to put the ball where it can’t be intercepted and make quick reads. Mark Dantonio knew after last year’s Nebraska game he had to change what he was looking for in a QB and that is a big reason why Connor is your starter.
Since winning the job he has not done well at running the ball. Cook acknowledged this week he has to be more willing to take off. I asked him and he said, “Watching tape on Minnesota, when they played them, their quarterbacks, both of them, had a lot of success running the ball. When the play broke, they were able to scramble, or if there was a designed quarterback run, but I think Minnesota had a lot of success in that football game because the quarterbacks were able to do that. But definitely with me, I think, I remember Coach D saying not trying to create too much and I think I’ve done a good job of not trying to create, but then there’s like a fine line of not trying to create and creating, so I think I really need to move the ball, move the ball downfield a little bit with my legs and not so much with my arm and actually look to run more because if you have a quarterback that can run a little bit, get‑‑ not trying to get like 20, 30 yards on a carry but maybe four or five yards, six yards, maybe get the 1st down, that’ll keep the defense on their heels.”
Dantonio agrees. He wants to see those creative skills of his young gunslinger. “I think Connor grows with every experience, like any young quarterback, like any quarterback, period. I think you grow with your experiences. You become more confident, you become more at ease. We played well on the road, and so I expect him to have a great football game. He’s going to have to create. There’s no question about that. All quarterbacks are going to have to do that. He’s going to have to deliver, crunch time, all quarterbacks have to do that, and he’s got to lead his football team.”
With the Huskers bringing pressure to stop the MSU running attack, Cook can’t be timid. He has to run to keep the Cornhuskers honest and when he gets the shot to throw he has to be accurate.
The Huskers need some help to win this game. Turnovers will be the help that they need. The Spartan D is dominant, but the Huskers are not void of talent. Giving them short fields gets points. Connor Cook needs to lead his side of the ball by going on the attack.
Don’t sit back, Nebraska is going to dare Connor to win this game and I think he can. He needs to play smart, attack when feasible, and manage when necessary.
When MSU is on defense…
In honor of the opening of firearms deer season in Michigan today, it is fitting to say the Spartans are going hunting. The moment they get off the plane, they are looking for a Cornhusker QB. MSU will dial pressure from every angle and spend the day all over the Husker QBs.
Make no mistake, the Huskers young QBs are talented, but they are young. Make no mistake, they aren’t Taylor Martinez who will not play. MSU will force the youngsters to make great reads fast. One way to attack MSU and their D is to go up tempo. MSU is known for making great reads and adjustments with Max Bullough. The faster the tempo, the less time for MSU to adjust.
Star DB Darqueze Dennard broke down the Huskers QB situation like this, “The difference is with Armstrong, there’s a little bit more option. He can throw the ball as well. There’s a little more option with him, and when they bring Kellogg in it’s a lot more throws. He don’t run too well. Not saying he can’t, but the team, when he comes in, they’re not looking to run. If they do run, it’s just going to be handing the ball off to Abdullah. It’s probably more throws with Kellogg in, and with Armstrong coming in it can be a little bit are both, more spread out, roll‑out passes with him. And I say more option with him, as well. It’s a big difference with Martinez, but with them changing quarterbacks, we know what to expect.”
This game plan is similar to UM. Just attack, attack, attack, and then attack some more. Will the Huskers QB fight for his life, or will he punish their aggression?
The Huskers have the B1G’s best RB in Ameer Abdullah, but the Spartans have yet to let a runner or a team run for 100 yards. They will sell out to stop him. They want this game to be played inside the Husker QBs helmet and NOT on the feet of Abdullah.
Shilique Calhoun talked about how good he is, “Abdullah, he’s a very shifty guy. He’s really good with his feet. He’s really good at getting around people and running around people. The biggest thing is to try and contain him, make sure he doesn’t get outside the box, make sure he stays in the backfield. That’s the kind of aspect we go into every game, but this game is, like everyone knows, is the bigger game. But that’s going to be key, also, try and stop their game and make sure they don’t get long yardage because that could be very devastating to our defense.”
Dantonio has great respect for the Huskers and their offense. He didn’t hesitate to make it clear that he thinks they won’t change that much with all the injuries. “I think offensively they are who they are a little bit conceptually. There’s certainly a difference when Kellogg goes in the game I think as opposed to Armstrong. But the difference between Armstrong and Martinez, experience, but I think they’re going to try and do the same things with Armstrong long‑term that they do with Martinez. Taylor was such a great runner that could take it the distance as you saw last year when something broke down or whatever the case, so he’s a very good football player, but I do think that Tommy Armstrong is an exceptional football player as a red‑shirt freshman, and to take on that responsibility, he’s doing a tremendous job.”
This game is a race to 11. Let me say that I think Connor Cook can lead MSU to more points than that. Without help from the Spartans via turnovers, I do not think the Huskers QBs can. MSU has NEVER beaten the Huskers, let alone in Lincoln. This is a game MSU should win with the health issues of Nebraska.
If you want to be a championship team, then you have to go into college football’s greatest environments and beat the Huskers. If the Huskers lose this game, their health is a major reason.
There is no excuse for the Spartans to lose this game. This is a big game for many reasons, not just this year’s dream of a Rose Bowl and a B1G title. This is a statement game and could be a program win.
When the season started I had this game pegged as the first loss for MSU on the year. Obviously, that loss came at Notre Dame. With so many injuries, not just to Taylor Martinez, but everywhere I don’t think Nebraska has the experience to beat the MSU D.
MSU is on fire. Last year’s loss to Nebraska hurt like the UM loss. For the past year players have talked about that loss. It was personal, it hurt, and they have waited. The respect that the MSU players and coaches have for the Huskers makes this a game more of friends than the hatred that permeates the Michigan game.
In the end, I think the MSU D plays in Memorial Stadium like Tom Osborne’s great Black Shirts, and Connor Cook faces and passes his biggest test. Make it 24-10 MSU.