Checking in on the Cornhuskers with SB Nation's Nebraska blog.
The Spartans return home for a big matchup with the Nebraska Cornhuskers. The guys from Corn Nation were kind enough to answer some questions on Saturday's game. You can check out our preseason Q&A here.
1. What has been the story of Nebraska football this season? What has been surprising since we talked in the preseason?
Billgrip: This has been a season filled with ups and downs. The same story could be true for a lot of teams, but for us the lows have been as low as ever, while the highs haven't actually felt that great. Our two losses were complete meltdowns, while some of our wins haven't been satisfying. The comeback wins against Wisconsin and Northwestern were more about us overcoming mistakes in games we should have won easily, and the win against Michigan gets an asterisk next to it because of Denard's injury that made him miss the second half. While the offense has been very good at times, Rex Burkhead's knee injury has probably prevented the offense from being consistent. Our defense has a lot of experienced players, but seems to lack a lot of talent. But when it comes down to it, this team is 6-2 with a shot at a B1G title, and right now that's all that should matter.
Husker Mike: Lack of execution. Bo Pelini has recited this after most games, and for good reason. Costly penalties. Too many turnovers on offense. Defensive breakdowns leading to ridiculous debacles. But now we're feeling a little better after two decent defensive performances.
DM: One of the biggest surprises to me has been that this team still can't get out of it's own way and can be a little mentally fragile at times. In a lot of ways, this is a very experienced team that you'd think should be beyond that. They still have a tendency to turn the ball over or commit a silly foul at an important time of the game. This team has had two pretty big comebacks and lost a game they shouldn't have and won one most think they probably shouldn't have, so they're probably right about where they should be.
Jon: What's been most surprising is the irony that of all the "feel good" sunshine pumping stories written about Nebraska during the offseason, the ones that most of us laughed about were the stories about Taylor Martinez working on his throwing motion and his footwork. His goal for the season, a 70% completion rate?? BWWHAHAAAA!!!
Here we are and Martinez is the most efficient passer in the Big Ten (18th nationally), has a 66% completion rate and a pretty decent TD to INT ratio of 16 to 5 - and there are STILL Husker fans who can't stand the guy and want to blame him for Nebraska not being national title contenders.
2. This is the top offense in the conference against the top defense. What are the strengths and weaknesses of the Husker O?
Billgrip: Strength - receivers. Last season this group could not get going. Part of it was Martinez's tendency to armpunt (he worked on that in the offseason btw), but the other part was drops...and lots of them. What a difference a year can make, even with some of the same players. We have the the deepest group of receivers in the Big 10, even though we've lost a few to injury. Kenny Bell will play on Sundays. Jamal Turner is a converted QB that's got freak athletic skills. Quincy Enunwa is one of the most physical receivers I've ever seen. And don't sleep on our TE's Cotton and Reed. Weakness - turnovers and inconsistent offensive line play. I'll let someone else hit on that if they want.
Husker Mike: Speed is the strength. Bell and Turner have speed to burn, and if you forget about him, tight end Kyler Reed can burn you as well. And Taylor Martinez still has his legs as well. Now, these guys are now catching the ball consistently, and Martinez has worked on his fundamentals and now actually can hit receivers in stride. Oh, and Nebraska can still run the ball. Rex Burkhead might not play, but Ameer Abdullah has proven to be a capable replacement. So what's the weakness? Up front, where the offensive line has been inconsistent and has struggled.
DM: Skill, skill, skill. They've got lots of it where you need it. This is likely the most talented team at the skill positions as I've seen since 1995, perhaps. The roller coaster nature of the offensive line has been really disappointing, but that's another conversation for another time.
3. The Huskers actually have visited MSU once before - a 50-10 blowout in Nick Saban's first game here in 1995 (highlights above). Do you remember anything about that?
Billgrip: I do actually. I was 7 years old. I remember thinking that I thought Michigan State's uniforms were cool, and that Tommie Frazier was the best football player in the world. As far as the game went, I knew we'd win. At that point in my life, pretty much all I knew was the Huskers winning, and it didn't matter who the opponent was. If we didn't blow our opponent out, everyone got mad. We only lost 4 games from 1993-1997...so on the rare occasion we lost, people were just confused. At church the Sunday after a loss, it was like someone had died.
Husker Mike: Husker fans might remember this game as the last game Lawrence Phillips played before assaulting his ex-girlfriend later that night. In that game, Phillips topped more than 200 yards, and probably would have been the frontrunner for the Heisman if he hadn't let his temper get the best of him.
DM: Oh, yeah. We remember that game a lot more than we probably should. Couple of reasons: first, we got a glimpse of just how good that team could be. Second, It was also the start of the Lawrence Phillips saga that Husker Mike detailed. There's a fairly legendary story that when Osborne and Saban met at midfield for their post game handshake, Osborne said something to the effect of "We might be a little better than we thought". MSU had a pretty good team that year, as it turned out, IIRC.
Jon: 1995..... hmmm.... yeah, I remember watching it and then I had to get on a plane to head to Arizona for a week of Lotus Notes training. Nobody knew that Nebraska would win a second national title, and nobody knew Nick Saban would become the freak coach that he is now.
4. What are three keys to victory for the Huskers this Saturday?
Billgrip: 1) Don't get behind. We may have pulled off great comebacks against Wisconsin and Northwestern, but on the road against Michigan State...eh, not gonna happen. 2)Force some turnovers. At this point you can count on us to make at least two or three turnovers a game. Sad, but true. If we lose the turnover battle by more than 2, I can't see a win. 3)Score on special teams. I don't trust our offense to get it done against a defense this good on the road. A touchdown in the return game would be huge in what looks to be a low scoring game. We've got plenty of guys who can make that happen.
Husker Mike: 1) Ball Security; limit turnovers. 2) Play within your responsibilities on defense 3) Run the ball to set up the passing game.
DM: 1) Count by 7, not 3 and do it at least 3 times. If Nebraska finds the endzone 3 times, I'll take my chances. 2) Get pressure on Maxwell. MSU has enough issues offensively, don't let Maxwell sit in the pocket, force him to make quick decisions. 3) Field position. If Nebraska forces the Spartans to have to consistently drive the length of the field, that should play well into Nebraska's favor.
Jon: Don't turn the ball over on offense. Don't turn the ball over on special teams. GET A FRIGGIN' TURNOVER ON DEFENSE!
5. Give me a score prediction and why.
Billgrip: Once a proud member of #teamsunshine around the CN blog, my Husker homerism died during the embarrassment in Columbus and the near collapse against Northwestern. I'm happy we beat Michigan, but once Denard got hurt there was no way we were losing that game. Our offense occasionally self-destructs against average defenses, and Michigan State has an incredible defense. Our defense might be getting better...but I still honestly have no idea what we'll get from them. Coming on the heels of a big win with control of the division, this feels like the perfect time to choke. I think the Huskers lose on Saturday, but I will note that my newfound pessimism has caused me to incorrectly pick the Huskers to lose the past two games. Here's to hoping they keep proving me wrong :). Score? Nebraska 17, Michigan State 24
Husker Mike: I certainly respect Michigan State's defense, but I'm still not sold on the offense. Pro-style offenses like Michigan States play right into Bo Pelini's hands, and so I expect a relatively low scoring game. Nebraska 20, Michigan State 10
DM: I'm expecting (hoping) the defense will continue to put pressure on the opponents quarterback and for this game to be a classic Big Ten game. It will be physical and every mistake will be magnified and probably low scoring. If either team scores on defense or special teams, that will swing the game heavily to their favor. But in the end, the game is decided by who scores the most points, and Nebraska has done that remarkably consistently all year. I don't see MSU keeping them off the scoreboard enough to win the game. NU's defense has gotten better as the year has progressed and a pocket passer is exactly what Nebraska likes. I'm expecting Pelini to ask his corners to play on an island and shutting down Le'Veon Bell and Maxwell. In the end, I see the best offense in the conference doing just enough to sneak out of East Lansing with a big win. NU: 16 MSU: 12
Jon: Before the year started, I wondered where Michigan State would get their points, and the answer has been that they've been hard to come by. Not so for the Huskers, and while the Spartan defense has been stellar, they haven't faced an offense as good as Nebraska's. I may be a homer, but I can't ignore turnovers so it'll be a higher scoring game than most think. Nebraska 35, Michigan State 31
Thanks again to the folks for answering our questions. Make sure you check out Corn Nation for all things Nebraska.