Inconsistency has been the hallmark of Nebraska's 2011 football season. At times, the Huskers have looked like the team that prognosticators rated in the top ten in the preseason. But those times, such as Nebraska's third quarter against Washington, first quarter against Wisconsin, and fourth quarter against Ohio State have been overshadowed by meltdowns, such as the first half against Ohio State or the middle twenty minutes against Wisconsin. To listen to the coaching staff explain it, it's been a rash of little mistakes that have been exploited in the meltdowns. They've seen signs that the Huskers have finally turned the corner.
Of course, last week's game against Minnesota is not a valid gauge of that. Even Gopher fans know that their team is seriously rebuilding, so pay little attention to what happened in Minneapolis. This week is the acid test: Michigan State comes to Lincoln on a roll, having defeated Ohio State, Michigan, and Wisconsin - all in a row. Now they get Nebraska; if that isn't a murderer's row schedule, I don't know what is.
The last three weeks, Michigan State has played very well on both sides of the ball. Could they be due for a letdown performance? Very possible, but Nebraska cannot count on that. It's going to take a complete performance on both sides of the ball to defeat the Spartans.
Let's start with defense. When you first look at Michigan State, the combination of quarterback Kirk Cousins and wide receiver B.J. Cunningham look like the lethal threat - and that's true to some extent. Those are the highlight reel players, but the real key to stopping Michigan State is stopping the run. When Michigan State lost to Notre Dame last month, the Irish held Spartan running backs to 29 yards on the ground. Last season, Iowa held Michigan State to 31 yards rushing in a 37-6 victory, and in the Capital One Bowl, Michigan State was held to negative 49 yards in a 49-7 loss.
Stopping the run is easier said than done, though. Injuries to three starters on the offensive line earlier in the season put inexperienced backups into key roles...but victories against Ohio State, Michigan, and Wisconsin eliminate the inexperience part. So expect a solid offensive line performance against the Huskers. But questions still remain at running back, where Edwin Baker is only 1,566 yards shy of his 2,000 yard goal for the season. (He'll need to average 224 yards a game, including a Big Ten Championship and bowl game, the rest of the season to get there.) Picking up the slack from Baker is sophomore Le'Vion Bell, who rushed for 87 yards against Wisconsin. So expect a two-headed rushing attack from Michigan State on Saturday, and the backup (Bell) might be better than the starter (Baker). Michigan State will run the ball to set up the pass, so it'll be incumbent to defend Michigan State in a similar fashion that Nebraska used against Washington. One key difference is that Kirk Cousins isn't going to scare anybody with his legs, so scrambles aren't in the cards. But his arm will more than make up for that, and B.J. Cunningham will exploit any breakdowns in the Nebraska secondary.
On offense, it'll come down to a battle in the trenches between Nebraska's improved offensive line and Michigan State's powerful defensive line. Nebraska's strategy of fast-paced play worked out, in the end, against Ohio State and might be a blueprint against Michigan State. Early on against the Buckeyes, it didn't appear that way. Up until the middle of the third quarter, the Nebraska rushing attack was stuck in neutral, but something was happening at the time that wasn't immediately apparent. While the yardage wasn't coming, the Buckeyes were wearing down with Nebraska's fast tempo. As the game wore on, the Buckeyes became tired, and the rushing game opened up like a dam breaking.
Problem is, Nebraska can't afford to wait until they are down 20 points to make their comeback against Michigan State. (Let alone hope that Joe Bauserman has a lost twin brother who happens to be the Spartans backup quarterback.) So Nebraska's passing game will need to be more efficient and keep the chains moving against the Spartans. Michigan State will likely challenge the Huskers running the ball and pressuring Taylor Martinez, so it'll be critical for Martinez to find his receivers, and more importantly, his receivers to make the catch. Those drops we saw in the second half against Minnesota? Can't happen on Saturday. Those interceptions we saw against Wisconsin? Can't happen on Saturday.
An interesting stat has emerged this season: in every game in 2011, Taylor Martinez has thrown 21 or 22 passes. Some people think Nebraska is better when Martinez throws less, which isn't quite true. Nebraska is better when Martinez completes more throws, like he did against Ohio State. Checking off and finding open receivers rather than forcing the ball into coverage will be the difference between a Nebraska first down or lining up to block a Spartan extra point attempt on the next play. Efficient passing will open up the running game, and an efficient running game will open up the passing game.
Expecting Michigan State to bring anything less than their "A" game to Lincoln is asking for disappointment. Instead, Nebraska needs to match Michigan State with a complete performance on both sides of the ball. We've seen signs of it at times during the season, but now, more than ever, it's time for it to manifest itself for sixty straight minutes.
This post was sponsorted by Liberty Mutual.
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