If Oklahoma is truly one of the three best teams in the U.S., and if their offense is at least that good, does Nebraska have something close to an elite defense? If Illinois is truly the worst team in the Big Ten, does Nebraska have the most inept offense in the B1G? Is Adrian Martinez an elite college quarterback? Does Nebraska have the worst special teams in the B1G? Is Connor Culp the Big Ten All-Conference kicker, or will he continue to be stuck in some sort of loop in his own mind where he can’t push aside the noise and just kick the football through the uprights? All could be true. We will start to sort it all out Saturday in East Lansing when Nebraska takes on the #20 Michigan State Spartans.
Michigan State went into Miami last weekend and defeated a ranked Hurricanes team by three touchdowns. Is Michigan State that good, or is Miami worse than we thought? How good is Kenneth Walker III? He’s currently leading all rushers in the country, and he’s clearly able to make people miss and see seams for smooth cuts, but he has yet to play against an even average run defense. More than any game since the first at Illinois, there are a lot of questions hanging over both Nebraska and the opponent, trying to figure out where and how we measure up. Here are the key matchups to watch….
Michigan State Offensive Line versus Nebraska Defensive Line
The Michigan State coaching staff has done a very good job of gathering players through the portal to fill needs, but neither the QB nor the RB look good without a good offensive line blocking in front of them. How good is Michigan State’s offensive line? It’s hard to say now as they really have not come up against a good enough defensive line to know for certain. Nebraska’s defensive line is pretty good, and we know that because they have had to match up against a variety of offensive schemes, and they’ve done quite well against each of them. Nebraska’s linebackers have consistently been able to flow and make plays because the D-linemen in front of them are doing the dirty work of holding the Line-of-Scrimmage while absorbing every available blocker. Michigan State will try to run on Nebraska using plays very similar to what Nebraska runs (Inside Zone, Split Zone, etc.), and they’re going to have a larger, better O-line than Buffalo’s. Nebraska effectively shut down Buffalo’s running game, but how will they do against a Big Ten O-line? If the D-line can stand their ground and consistently soak up all five Spartan O-linemen, Nebraska’s linebackers and DBs will be in positions to make a lot of tackles, including disrupting plays and making tackles for loss.
Kenneth Walker III (RB) versus Nebraska’s Linebackers
In the first two years of the Frost era at Nebraska, our defensive linemen were consistently being pushed backwards, which disrupted the abilities of the LBs to move from side to side in order to flow with the ball and fill gaps. Since the start of the 2020 season that has consistently been less of an issue. With faster Inside LBs and a bigger, stronger line in front of them, we’re now in the best position that we have been in at Nebraska in several years for taking on the challenge of a running back like Walker. Michigan State’s running game is not complicated; Inside Zone is their base play, and they do some similar gap-scheme plays to what Nebraska runs. Walker is even a similar style of running back to what Nebraska has: imagine Sevion Morrison’s cutting ability, Rahmir Johnson’s speed, and the vision and forward motion of Markese Stepp in one running back, and that’s what you get with Walker. His big plays against Northwestern all came from simple Inside Zone plays that he cut back against the flow and bounced outside. Once he gets in the secondary, very few defenders have been able to catch him. Northwestern’s defense struggled with basic run fits, especially the backside edge defender, who was often over-pursuing, taking himself out of position to stop the cutbacks. On top of that, Walker is slippery, often making a Safety miss or slipping out of arm tackles or running past poor angles or poor run-fits. In every game he has had a lot of runs where he was stopped at the line for little to no game, but in every game he has also occasionally slipped through or around, and he’s gone.
Garrett Nelson has been having a pretty good season from his Edge rushing Outside LB position: Nebraska needs him to have a solid game on Saturday. He doesn’t need to have any monster plays or do anything super-human: he just needs to close the back door whenever the running play starts out with Walker headed to the other side of the formation. I’m listing Nelson first because his job will likely be the most important in preventing Walker bending back and bouncing outside for a long TD run. With a good run-fit, aggressive angles, and good tackling, Nelson should come up with quite a few tackles right at or even behind the Line of Scrimmage (LoS) when Walker looks to bend back away from the flow of his own offensive linemen and the rest of the Nebraska defense. If Nelson isn’t there, Walker is going to have some huge plays.
JoJo Domann is listed as an Outside Linebacker—the same as Nelson—but his position is different in that he isn’t lining up in a 3-point stance, and he’s often asked to slide out to cover a Slot-Wide Receiver. Michigan State runs a lot of formations with flexed WRs, meaning that they’re lined up on the line of scrimmage, but they’re only a few yards away from the OT. They want to crack down inside on whoever is there to hold the edge, which will be either Nelson or Domann in most situations. Having to worry about holding that edge while shedding a potential crack back block from a WR leaves the OLBs open to biting on the run fakes during play-action passes, which would allow the Slot-WR to get past him into a pass route.
The Inside Linebackers need to clean up everything else in the run game, erasing any mistakes from their teammates in front or beside them. If Domann and Nelson hold their edges, and the D-line holds their ground, our ILBs should be making plays all day. They need to tackle well. The danger of a big play between the tackles from Walker will almost solely come from potential missed tackles. Be fundamentally sound in filling the gaps that are their responsibilities, hit low and wrap up, and it should be a good day for Nick Henrich, Luke Reimer, and Chris Kolarevic.
Walker is too good to go an entire day without slipping and breaking some tackles, so still expect him to make some plays. Miami’s DBs weren’t catching him, and I doubt that Nebraska’s are faster than Miami’s, so expect Walker to probably have at least a couple of long-play touchdowns. If ONLY Walker is scoring TDs, and if we can keep him from having more than a couple of long ones, our defense will have done enough to put the offense in position to win the game. Hold him to less than that, and it could be a special day for the Blackshirts.
Michigan State Wide Receivers versus Nebraska Defensive Backs
Michigan State has some very good Wide Receivers, but Nebraska also has very good Defensive Backs. Because of the nature of Michigan State’s offense—run-heavy with lots of H-Backs and WRs blocking inside—Chinander is likely going to have to play quite a bit of man coverage on the outside WRs with Nebraska’s Cornerbacks. The defensive scheme and our CBs are built for that. Cam Taylor-Britt (assuming that he’s fully healthy) tends to shine brightest when he’s in that position. The CBs will also have to replace their teammates in their run-fits when the WR(s) that they’re covering block down on our OLBs and/or Safeties, which means that they’ll need to step up and make some tackles in the run game when the ball is coming their way. When Michigan State has a balanced formation, I expect us to have a Cover-2 look with both Safeties at medium depth so that they can help the OLBs with play-action passes, but they also can come up and help make plays against Walker when he either bends back to the outside and/or gets by a defender.
Nebraska’s goal on defense will be to shut down the running game and force Michigan State to pass, which will require the CBs to shut down their respective WRs early so that the Safeties and OLBs can be used more in stopping the run. If the CBs can do that, it will be much more difficult for everything else that the Spartans will try to do.
Nebraska’s Wide Receivers and Tight Ends versus the Michigan State Defensive Backs
If Nebraska has almost all of their top Wide Receivers and Tight Ends healthy enough to play on Saturday, Nebraska’s greatest advantage on offense, by far, should be how they match up with the Spartan DBs. Michigan State’s DBs have been giving up big plays all season, and only Miami had WRs who were as athletic as Nebraska’s. Nobody has played against Michigan State with WRs and TEs with the size of Nebraska’s. Nebraska needs to attack them early and often, deep and shallow.
Michigan State’s base defense is a 4-3, and they usually have a Cover-2 (2 high Safeties) defense playing behind them. Their Safeties will play a lot at mid-depth to try and shore up the middle of the defense against the TEs and the WRs running deep crossing routes, but that will leave them vulnerable to deep passes to the outside, such as the beauty that Adrian Martinez dropped into Zavier Betts’ hands against OU. Assuming that Nebraska uses a lot of 12 Personnel (1 RB, 2 TEs), the Spartan Safeties will have to either help cover the TEs in front of them or shade to the outside to help cover the wideouts, but they will likely have to pick their poison as they should not be able to do both. There will be gaps somewhere. Martinez has been throwing the ball very well when given enough time to find his WRs, so we need the WRs to run crisp, clean routes. If Oliver Martin returns, I’d expect to see Nebraska take some deep shots early to the outside with both Martin and Betts, but the majority of the passes will likely be underneath to the TEs, plus Touré and Manning at mid-depth: deeper than the Spartan LBs but in front of the Safeties. Nebraska’s WRs need to get open, catch the ball, and make some plays.
Scott Frost versus Mel Tucker
Much has been said about the matchup between these two coaches in 2019 when Tucker was at Colorado as Frost and Nebraska dominated almost the whole game, but Tucker’s guys kept it close enough to make some big plays at the end to pull out a win. It may be that type of game again on Saturday—which would be nerve rattling as neither team has had dependable field goal units—but more than any other big game since 2018, this matchup is well suited for Frost to try and win it the way that he did in 2018: score a lot of points early and often, and force their offense to throw out their game plan in order to try and keep up. It’s a bit of a gamble for Frost to go that route as he’s spent most of this season getting his offense to resemble more of a traditional Big Ten offense, focused on running the ball first. If Frost gets away from that, and if Michigan State can keep it close, there will be a mental advantage that goes to Michigan State as they are trying to turn themselves into a more physically dominating team that wears out their opponents. Frost could go that route, too, and Nebraska actually has more depth in both lines to play that style. Will we saw the Scott Frost offense of UCF and 2018 Nebraska, trying to outscore an opponent, or will we see the balanced, ball-control offense that Nebraska has been using more this season that protects the defense and plays the field position game? I suspect that it will be some of both. Look for more running plays than passing plays, but there will be a liberal mixing in of deep shots, too.
As always and until further notice, Nebraska needs to clean up its special teams, eliminate turnovers, and minimize penalties. Do that, and Nebraska should win.