Spartan Football: The Outlook Moving Forward…Nebraska

Jonathan Schopp

Coming off the most exciting win at Spartan Stadium in decades, the Spartans now hit the road for Lincoln to face the Nebraska Cornhuskers at noon on Saturday.

Offense

This unit looks like it’s starting to put it all together. Behind an Offensive Line that is gelling and getting better by the week, the hopes for a balanced and explosive Offense are starting to be realized. MSU has play makers at every skill position on the field, but if the backfield doesn’t have time to get into the run or pass play, it looks bad and ineffective. You’ve gotta have time to show off your skill.

Dan Roushar’s unit has lately been finding Keshawn Martin in space, and K-Mart has been doing his thing. Expect that to get tougher this week since Bo Pelini is far from a Defensive slouch, and will no doubt make #82 a marked Spartan to keep track of. But since Martin is so versatile, he should ideally find his hands on the ball 5 times or more on Saturday. For the Spartans to win, he might need to. Like Coach D has said in the past, sometimes you’ve gotta “feed the horse.”

Speaking of the Backs, though Rock Baker never really got going after being startled by the opening snap fumble, the running game did pretty well overall against Wisconsin. Bell and Baker combined for 102 against a Top-10 team. Things won’t be any easier against Nebraska on Saturday. In fact, they should be a whole lot tougher.

Going on the road is traditionally a lot tougher on an Offense than a Defense. Saturday could be as tough a road environment as MSU has seen since Penn St., ‘08. That’s only going to place a bigger premium on the MSU run game. The biggest concern for this unit Saturday must be the matchups at the point of attack. For the Spartans to have a decent shot at knocking off the fighting Pelini’s, one would think they’ve got to have at least 75 yards on the ground (taking away any “garbage time” yards and subtractions for sacks).

Expect Rock Baker to bounce back, and expect Le’Veon Bell to keep pounding. His physical play made a deeper impact on Wisconsin than appeared on the stat sheet. But keep an eye out for Larry Caper too. Something big’s going to break for Caper at some point over these last 5 games. And if Bell can keep his physical attack going against the Black Shirts Saturday, especially early, things might open again a bit for the entire Offense.

Defense

Wisconsin featured the best Offense MSU should play all year, including the Bowl Game. Though the Defense gave up 443 yards on the day, the Spartan Dawgs made enough big plays when needed to change the game. Jerel Worthy stuffed Montee Ball inside the 10 to set up a shot for a Safety. Then to capitalize on Worthy’s burst, Denicos Allen led the chase on the next snap for the Spartans’ first 2 points and the beginning of a big momentum shift.

Before that, when MSU was firmly on the ropes and very prone to an early Bucky Knock Out, Trenton Robinson’s INT of the previously unblemished Russell Wilson was the first thought of doubt for a Wisconsin Offense that had shredded everyone for the first half of the season. Without those plays from the Defense, there’s probably no way to climb out of the early 14-point hole.

Nebraska’s Offense is a bit of an unknown. Sometimes they look alright, and sometimes (see versus Ohio St. before their QB went down, and Wisconsin) they look more than rough around the edges. That should play right into the hands of this outstanding unit. And if you don’t think the Dawgs will be a little extra jacked to get William Gholston back at the End, just wait and see how they get out there and hunt early.

This unit has quickly spawned “big play” guys like Denicos Allen and Darqueze Dennard. That’s not to say there’s not a handful of others like Johnny Adams and Isaiah Lewis who can do the same, but to point out that something quite amazing is developing with this unit. There are explosive and athletic playmakers all over the field that an Offense has to account for. And most of it is young!

Nebraska’s Quarterback Taylor Martinez was quoted early this week as saying, "I really don't think they (Michigan St. Defense) slowed him (Denard Robinson) down. I think the key factor was the wind kind of slowed him down...the wind with his passing game and stuff.  Hopefully we can exploit what Denard Robinson didn't do."

Perhaps Martinez didn’t see what happened to Robinson in 2010. That’s an interesting comment, if not straight ahead challenge for Pat Narduzzi and his Spartan Dawgs. It will be very interesting to see what Martinez thinks of the Spartan Defense later Saturday evening. Perhaps the Spartans might question who Martinez thinks he is to compare himself with Denard Robinson. 60 minutes of this matchup will reveal the truth.

If MSU has a clear edge in this road game, it comes with this unit. They should have a clear advantage over the Nebraska Offense. This is the type of game that a great Defense can be the deciding difference. If MSU is to have a shot to win Saturday, the Defense will have to at least play well. If they don’t, if they fail to communicate, miss tackles, assignments, etc., it would be hard to imagine an MSU victory.

Special Teams

As big as this unit was last year against Wisconsin with the Keshawn Martin Punt return, Saturday night’s impact was even bigger. Thanks in large part to another set of Wisconsin Special Teams’ gaffes, opportunities were there for MSU to capitalize on. Big time credit is due to the Spartans’ “unit of the year” in 2010 for showing up with a Field Goal and Punt block in the 2nd Quarter that blew the pretend roof off of Spartan Stadium. I don’t know the last time it’s been as loud as it was after the Punt Block in the 2nd, but the 1st Half of the ’98 Notre Dame game comes to mind as a possibility.

Anyone in Spartan Nation that didn’t appreciate the importance of the Punt probably does after Saturday night and the previous two games. Without Mike Sadler pinning Wisconsin inside the 10 at the start of the 2nd Quarter, there’s no chance for a momentum changing Safety. If Sadler’s looking for a break, he shouldn’t expect one of Saturday. He should be needed again in a big way against Nebraska. Field position should count a lot in this one. And though he kinda block-shanked (golf analogy) one Saturday, it was his first mishap in recent memory, and hardly did anything to diminish his impact on this team’s 3-0 record in October. Sadler has been a surprise to many, but no surprise at all to Spartan Nation.

For Place Kicker Dan Conroy, it’s been a while. But the last time, it was pretty sweet. His game winning kick against Ohio St. aside, it’s got to be a bit of a concern that Conroy’s only been making Extra Point kicks for the last 3 weeks. If Conroy lines up for 3 on Saturday, it will have been 4 entire weeks since he tried a Field Goal. He’s due to get a shot at one, and since he’s a veteran with a good level of success over time now, that should bode well. However, he would benefit from getting an early shot at one Saturday if the opportunity presents itself. It’s not ideal that your Kicker would end up in a big pressure situation, say for the game winner, having not made one in a month.

This unit turned the end Wisconsin game upside down at the end of the 1st Half with the Punt Block for the Touchdown. Though Brett Bielema said his team didn’t see anything on the punt block they hadn’t earlier seen on film, it certainly looked that way based on their reaction during the play, and then response on the sideline. Special Teams might have had its best game for the entire 2011 schedule, but when you’ve got the speed and athleticism the Spartans have out there these days, this unit can strike at any point in time.

Overall

The last 53 minutes of Saturday’s all-time best Michigan St.-Wisconsin game elevated an already very good looking 2011 regular season into the realm of becoming special. Spartan Nation need only look to last year for an example. Special seasons are made up of special wins. That’s what separates them from very good seasons.

This is team had momentum before the last second of Wisconsin, but after pulling it off in such dramatic fashion, without its best Defensive End and spotting Bucky 14 off the bat, that momentum should compound in a very nice fashion. And the Spartans will need all that momentum to measure up what should be a very hungry and tough bunch of Cornhuskers.

This is nearly a must win for Nebraska. Their schedule looks like it could have a couple losses in their last 3 games of the year. If they don’t beat the Spartans at home Saturday, they’re probably out of the Division race (reminder, I predicted back in the spring that they’d land in the middle of the Conference). For MSU, that means they should expect everything the Huskers’ got. It’s now, or not this year, for the Huskers.

Expect Nebraska to come out with more urgency than they have all year. Because of that, the Spartans must match the intensity of the home team and Memorial Stadium faithful. Again, matching the intensity of the home team is probably one of the biggest keys to winning on the road, and it’s only amplified when you’re in a bigger environment and a bigger scenario. Though it’s easy to recognize that premise, it won’t be easy for the Spartans to do. This should be the toughest test all year considering all of the elements. Don’t expect it to be a pretty looking game. It should be quite the grind.

If the Spartans somehow leave Lincoln on Saturday evening with a win, watch out. A lot of very exciting things would be possible for November, December, and January. That’s not to say the same won’t be true if they lose, but rather that the likely hood of those really exciting opportunities would increase exponentially with a road “W” on Saturday.

It won’t be easy, but neither was playing Wisconsin…a team who rolled Nebraska by 31 (in Madison) at the beginning of the month.

P.A.T. (Perhaps Another Thought…)

  1. The lineage of Drew Stanton->Brian Hoyer->Kirk Cousins might be the best progression of Quarterbacks in Michigan St. Football history.
  2. College Football still relies too much on the importance of pre-season rankings. Their influence remains too strong on where teams stand in national rankings, and the BCS standings,
  3. If you’re the University of Georgia, what’s the benefit of playing the “Largest Cocktail Party in the World” in Jacksonville? Georgia is Florida’s biggest rival, and Florida is Georgia’s biggest rival. But they play the game in a “neutral site?” Huh? In Florida? It’s a bad idea, for both sides. And spare me the ridiculous argument about dividing the tickets right down the middle. The game is held at a smaller stadium than either team plays in at home, and it’s in the state of Florida. Not New Orleans, not Mississippi, and anything but neutral. Is the next neutral site for this game going to be in Atlanta? If you want to go neutral, play it in South Carolina or New Orleans. Can you fathom playing your biggest rival at a “neutral site?” Both schools should be beyond embarrassed at this point because the rest of the country is laughing at you both. Why in the world would either team want to give the other the advantage of never having to play its #1 rival on the road?

*Follow Jonathan on Twitter @JPSpartan, and find him inside the Phalanx Forum

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