Coming off a 41-28 win over Nebraska that clinched a share of the Legends Division, the Spartans (9-1) hit the road for Evanston and a date with Northwestern (4-6) at noon this Saturday.
Opportunity knocked early and often for this unit as Nebraska started its turnover party in their own territory less than a minute into the game. The Spartans managed only 3 points out of the first drive after Connor Cook over threw a wide open Tony Lippett at the back of the End Zone by a smidge thanks to the wind. They soon after picked up the pace and converted well by the end of 30 minutes to lead 20-7.
The Offense’s ability to get enough out of those opportunities allowed MSU to get far enough ahead of Nebraska to ever give up control of the game. A large part of that control came from the blossoming Spartan running game. Jeremy Langford continued to progress as a every down back in this league as he carried it 32 times for 151 yards, besting the outstanding Huskers’ back Ameer Abdullah. “He’s working harder and harder,” Coach Dantonio told us about the Red-Shirt Sophomore’s continuing development as the Spartans top back.
It’s evident that Langford keeps improving, but he had pretty good looking instincts from the start. “He’s got a nice smooth jump cut,” Northwestern Head Coach Pat Fitzgerald told us earlier this week. He mixes finesse with many of the traditional Big Ten Running Back traits. “He’s running with power and toughness,” Dantonio observed, and Fitzgerald later confirmed independently. “The thing that’s been most impressive about him is how he’s handled the situation,” Dantonio described about Langford’s unwillingness to let any other areas of this game, like his role on Special Teams, slip with his new found prominent role. “He’s been diligent in terms of how he’s hung in there (in the past few years).”
“The improvement that you’ve seen is because of Connor Cook and their Offensive Line,” Fitzgerald said about this unit’s steady improvement. “He’s (Cook) been very efficient…he’s taken care of the ball.” Connor Cook is also making a habit of completing the throws he needs to have most. He’s struggled at times with the easier throws, and even struggled at points against Nebraska, but deserves a lot of credit for making the throws that counted most.
Just past half way of the 2nd Quarter Cook was sacked for a 9-yard loss that pushed MSU back to 3rd and 19 from their 33. Then came huge play number one as he hit Tony Lippett, who continues to make plays, for the 1st Down. That drive didn’t end in a score, but after another Mike Sadler punt was downed inside the 10, Nebraska went onto fumble while inside their Red Zone. Three plays later Langford ran in his first of three TDs on the day, adding value to Cook’s earlier conversion. As Cook develops, he has a trait that reminds some of a young Green Bay Packer that wore #4 because the Ole’ Gunslinger used to miss regularly on the easy ones, but showed a knack for completing the tougher balls.
“There’s no question he’s resilient, he’s calm under pressure,” Dantonio noted about the intangibles of his first year starter. “Our receiver group as a whole has grown steadily along with Connor Cook,” he added. One of the biggest plays from that group came in the middle of the 4th as Cook connected with Keith Mumphrey on a 3rd and 8 for a 27-yard Touchdown and the 34-21 lead. “Really (that play) is what separates the game, takes us back to a 13-point lead,” Dantonio concluded. “(Mumphrey) is a very confident player who goes hard.” That big one may carry momentum over for the Red-Shirt Junior.
Nebraska was the Spartans biggest challenge of 2013, even without Spartan shredder Taylor Martinez lining up under Center. Ameer Abdullah was pretty healthy though, and navigated his way through this unit far better than anyone else year. MSU’s Defense neutralized Abdullah and the rest of the Husker Offense by creating and securing the four turnovers that decided the game more than any other single element. “They have a great plan in all phases,” Coach Fitzgerald said about prolific and experienced Spartan Defense.
No one could’ve predicted the type of turnover run the Defense would go on Saturday. There’s just no way to conceive that a good team, let alone one playing for control of a Division, would cough it up so many times. But the Defense has done their part in landing MSU inside the top 10 of Turnover Margin thus far into the season. So while Abdullah zigzagged for 123 yards and Imani Cross broke a 51-yarder to the house, the Defense kept the heat on Tommy Armstrong and kept turning the Huskers over all day. Without those turnovers, Nebraska probably would have expected to win the game.
The key turnover happened after a Sadler punt put the Huskers up against the Goal Line at 5:36 of the 3rd. The Spartan Dawgs are always looking to hunt, but when you give them that kind of leverage it can make for an uncomfortable series of snaps. On 1st Down Tommy Armstrong had the ball knocked out of his hands by an anxious-pulling Guard and saw the ball bounce past the line of scrimmage into the grasp of Trae Waynes who secured it at the 3. The subsequent TD put MSU up 27-14 and reestablished total control at that point.
“He’s making a lot of plays down the field,” Dantonio said about the emerging star at Field Corner. “You don’t always notice him because he has guys covered,” he noted. “He’s got the perfect disposition to be an outstanding Corner in this league.” Waynes is only a Red-Shirt Sophomore, so he’ll be doing work on the back end around here for quite a while still.
Kurtis Drummond was a major factor all over the field Saturday. “Obviously he was in a lot of plays,” Coach D laid out. His first strike was an interception on the Huskers’ second drive of the game, just three plays after their first turnover of the day. Nebraska went at Drummond with success a couple times later, but the Senior kept playing and ended up getting the best of the Cornhuskers on the day. “He’s a guy that’s very controlling in the back end…he knows and understands what’s going on,” Dantonio said. Drummond leads the strong back end along with Isaiah Leiws, and will be one of the unit’s leaders in 2014. “He’s a good tackler, has great ball skills, and (is) around the ball a lot.”
Northwestern is having a nightmarish season that’s culminated in six-straight losses. Their Offense isn’t as prolific as they’ve been in past years, but they’re not that short on talent. In fact, they probably have more talent thorough out their roster than they have in Pat Fitzgerald’s era. They have two Quarterbacks that can start and make plays, when healthy. “They’ve executed at very, very high level,” Fitzgerald countered about the 2013 Spartan Defense. “They show up to the ball in a bad mood.” If this unit can bring that attitude to Evanston again Saturday, they will lead the way to stamping the Big Ten Championship game headline in ink.
This unit saved their best performance of the year for when it was needed most. They really put MSU over the hump at Nebraska and secured the win with a set of special plays. Mike Sadler and Kurtis Drummond led what will go down as one of the unit’s best days under Mark Dantonio.
The Kickers’ day got off to a fast start as Mike Geiger converted a 45-yard Field Goal after the first Cornhuskers turnover. Though down-wind, 45 yarders are no sure thing and momentum would’ve flipped back to Nebraska had that one been missed. Sadler’s day got going as he dropped his first punt inside the opponent’s 10-yard line, a stat he may lead the nation in for 2013. Midway through the 1st was Sadler’s next try, which brings Kurtis Drummond back into focus. Drummond timed his arrival at Jordan Westerkamp’s door perfectly as the 56-yar punt arrived, then he forced it loose. Rather than leaving the recovery to chance, Drummond regrouped and used his nose for the ball to secure it for MSU at the Husker 8. Two plays later MSU stretched their lead to 10-0.
Sadler dropped two more punts inside the 10, the second one bringing Drummond back into the mix for another big play. “(He) downed that punt inside the 1, and then we get a subsequent fumble on the very next play,” Dantonio recounted. Sadler wasn’t done either, as perhaps the play that put the game away for good came from the running portion of his Punter legs.
“It’s about timing and it’s about the player executing the play,” Dantonio said about the converted fake just over a minute into the 4th Quarter. MSU was driving into a “two club wind” (golf term) and facing a 4th and 1 from the Nebraska 27. If not for the wind, the Huskers would’ve been thinking even more about a possible fake. Ready or not, Sadler improvised after the snap and took it right instead of up the middle, got a key Connor Kruse block, and got the 1st Down. “If you’re confident in your players making plays, that’s when you have an opportunity,” the Coach explained about his successful trick play run. “The playbook is not very deep because we create them as we go…it’s not like we’re doing these things every week.”
Energized by that conversion, MSU closed out the drive and the game for good on a 27-yard TD hook up between Cook and Keith Mumphrey. Those are just some of the highlights for an outstanding Special Teams performance that truly put MSU over the top for the day. It wasn’t just the five Nebraska turnovers that won the game. Before Sadler’s fake and the Mumphrey TD grab, MSU was up just 6-points with almost an entire quarter to play. That group of plays broke whatever remained of the Huskers’ hopes, and inspired the rest of the Spartans to finish out their business for the day.
By taking care of business and pouncing on the opportunity before them Saturday, Spartan Football has already completed the kind of bounce back season they were hoping for in 2013. Now it’s time to pour it on and get everything they can out of a team that’s honestly yet to play their best game of 2013. Next up it’s time to lock up the Legends Division outright before the end of Saturday’s play. Once that happens it will be about acknowledging the Division title and then beginning more focused preparations for a December and January Championship run.
Nebraska was a wild game in that the 5-0 turnover margin and fake Field Goal conversion kept the game from ever really being out of the Spartans’ control. Most expected it to be more competitive for closer to 60 minutes. While Nebraska may have walked off the field thinking they were the better team but simply beat themselves, the reality is that MSU took what the Huskers gave them, and with it the spoils of a Division title.
Northwestern is another opportunity for this program to demonstrate its modern day maturity and focus. Even though MSU is now 9-1, there’s a still a media figure or two around that isn’t sure they’ll win even one of their last two ball games. It would be easy to slack off in preparation or intensity going into a sleepy Big Ten environment to face a team that’s not only seen the wheels come off this year, but the entire ride fall apart around them. Since coming up short against Ohio St. at home late on the 5th of October, it’s been a free fall for the Wildcats. They need to beat MSU and Illinois just to qualify for a Bowl Game.
Look for Mark Dantonio’s staff and upper classmen to set the tone this week by keeping their foot on the gas. It’s ultimately up to the players, however, to continue chasing their very best performance. It would be a surprise to see MSU slump down to the level of their competition, and if they do they’ll give these heavily wounded Wildcats a chance to throw whatever’s left inside of them out on their home field. If we do see a slight Spartan let down early this Saturday, it cannot be permanent because the Spartans aren’t good enough to just roll their helmets out there and expect Pat Fitzgerald’s bunch to lay down and hand them the victory.
Saturday could mean MSU’s third piece of Big Ten Championship hardware in four seasons. As Bill Parcells continues to remind us, you are as good as your records says. That’s where Spartan Football is in November of 2013. They’re not mired in a painful 2012 of single digit losses, nor stuck in some cartoonish figure that a four-letter network commentator still insists they are on Saturday mornings. They are on the verge of establishing a dominant program inside the Big Ten Conference. That possibility alone should be more than enough to inspire another championship level effort this week. At this point, the program won’t really put up with anything less.
P.A.T. (Perhaps Another Thought…)
- The only way the Big Ten can expect to place two teams in the BCS is if MSU beats Ohio St. and heads to Pasadena. OSU would have too strong a record and is too big a draw for the Fiesta or Orange Bowl to pass up. The Spartans may have a better case than others should they lose a relatively close one to Ohio St., but look who airs the BCS games on TV. To me, there remains a pecking order of the National Championship Game, the Rose Bowl, and then all the other bowls lumped together, including the BCS. I recognize that may be a minority view point, but if you look at them closely you may decide to agree.
- Earlier this year media began to speculate that Pat Fitzgerald may be a candidate to take over at either USC or Texas. Now it looks like neither job will be open and it’s unclear whether either school would heavily consider the young but experienced Head Coach because his teams tend to slip and slide as the season goes on. NU (or NW if you prefer) knows it needs to build the new football facility by the lake they’ve promised him for some time now because 2014 could easily be a bounce back season for the Cats, and an easy exit ramp for Coach Fitzgerald.
- AJ McCarron as one of the best College Football players and Quarterbacks of all-time? No, probably not. One of the most successful? Without a doubt. There’s a big difference between the word “best” and “successful.” Tim Tebow was probably the best player of the modern era, but if McCarron wins another National Championship, and makes it 4 out of 5 for the Tide, the most successful label would be earned. PS. He Red-Shirted his first season, and is now 23 years old.