In the past, Nebraska was a program feared and envied by every school in the nation. In recent years they sported an option-heavy attack full of playmakers like Taylor Martinez, Ameer Abdullah and Kenny Bell and a mean defense anchored by the likes of Randy Gregory, Lavonte David and Prince Amukamara.
My how quickly things can change.
The 2015 Cornhuskers look very little like those teams of not-so-old, in terms of style and personnel. First year head coach Mike Riley is widely renowned as one of the nicest guys in all of college football, but his 3-6 record, which includes losses to Big Ten bottom feeders Illinois and Purdue, is unacceptable for a place like Nebraska.
It shouldn't go without saying that, much like the 2012 Michigan State team, Nebraska has suffered some incredibly tough close losses. Before last week's 10-point loss to Purdue (oof), the previous five L's were by a combined 13 points. Some of that is tough luck (a Hail Mary loss to BYU) but much of it is deceiving. The Huskers were down 33-10 against The U before a 23-point 4th quarter sent the game to overtime, where they eventually lost. Big Red also flubbed away a 13-point 4th quarter lead to Illinois, a game they lost...14-13.
As the old saying goes "You make your own luck". This year, Nebraska just can't get the old luck machine fired up.
Despite all that it's foolish to think they won't be ready for this weekend as the #7 Spartans roll into town for a nighttime tilt. Like they have with every team this year, MSU should expect Nebraska's best shot. If it's anything like the matchups of the past, it's sure to be a dandy.
When Nebraska Has The Ball
Despite his ironic surname, quarterback Tommy Armstrong is a bit miscast in Riley's pro-style attack. There is no doubt he can throw the ball and actually lives up to his last name when doing so, but asking him to pass almost 36 times a game (four more times per game than Connor Cook) is asking a lot, especially when he is only completing 53.5% of those attempts.
The best part of his game is his ability to run and that skill set was utilized perfectly in former head man Bo Pelini's option offense. He has still gained almost 300 yards on the ground, but those numbers are far off last year's 700 yard pace.
Armstrong missed last week with a turf toe injury, but is listed as the starter for Saturday. If he can't go it will be up to junior Ryker Fyfe to challenge the Spartan secondary. Fyfe threw for 407 yards and four touchdowns in his spot start last week, but he also added in four costly interceptions. Don't think that went unnoticed by MSU.
Regardless of quarterback, the Spartans will have chances to make plays on 50/50 balls, many of which will be going to "How is he STILL in College" First-Teamer, Jordan Westerkamp. The wideout is more or less the Huskers version of Aaron Burbridge. He has 20 more catches than second leader receiver Brandon Reilly, and is tied for the team lead in touchdown receptions with five. With De'Mornay Pierson-El going out for the rest of the season with a knee injury, Westerkamp's load will only get heavier. Demetrious Cox will have his hands full Saturday.
This game will be an interesting test for the freshman safety tandem of Grayson Miller and Khari Willis. Both have played well, but shown their youth at times. If Nebraska gets behind like they have so often this season, they will air the ball out. If Willis and Miller are up to the challenge this shouldn't be a problem, but if they play like freshman the Huskers might stick around.
(Footnote: I just found out Westerkamp is a junior and am beginning to question everything I've ever believed in.)
This section is going to be weirdly short.
Running that ball used to be the bread and butter for the Husker O. They haven't completely abandoned the run, but with the new offense, the emphasis has shifted. Junior Terrell Newby has nearly 700 yards on the ground and is averaging over five yards a carry. Fullback Andy Janovich and backup running back Imani Cross each had 30+ carries, but the main man is Newby.
Normally in the Big Ten, it's stop the run first and foremost but against Nebraska, it's the other way around. MSU shouldn't have too much trouble keeping Newby under wraps, using only the front four and the occasional blitz. Given how much Nebraska likes to throw nowadays, I imagine the Spartans will be focused more on coverage. That being said, MSU will almost certainly bring the house a few times and try to force whoever is under center to throw one up for grabs.
If the Spartans can win the turnover battle, it will go a long way towards leaving Lincoln with a win.
When Michigan State Has The Ball
Nebraska has not faced a gauntlet of great quarterback play this year. Their toughest test so far has probably been Miami-FL's Brad Kaaya and he put up 379 and 2 TD's. Wisconsin's Joel Stave also threw for 300+ and Purdue's David Blough went for 274 and 4 TD's just last week.
All of that leads me to this: Connor Cook is going to be, by far, the best triggerman Nebraska has seen all year.
Going into the bye week, Cook was playing the best football of his career throwing for over 1,000 yards and 7 TD's in his last three games. His favorite target, Burbridge, has been the beneficiary of his laser-focus, reeling in 27 catches for 416 yards in that same span. When these two are on -- which has been most of the season -- they are as lethal a pass-and-catch combo as there is in America.
Safeties Byerson Cockerell, Nate Gerry and cornerback Josh Kalu are the top three tacklers on the team with 51, 50 and 49 tackles, respectively. If the top three tacklers on your team all play in the secondary, that means teams are getting to the third level of the defense A LOT. This is generally a bad sign.
The lack of a pass rush probably has something to do with that unsettling trend. 10 Nebraska players have registered a sack, but only defensive end FREEDOM AKINMOLADUN (that name deserves all caps) has more than two on the year. It's safe to assume they will bring pressure, but if they drop into heavy coverage, Cook will have time against a less-than-fearsome pass rush.
If they have their way, Cook, Burbridge, Macgarrett Kings Jr, RJ Shelton and Josiah Price will gladly help the Husker secondary pad its tackle numbers.
Honestly, I cannot believe I made it this far into the preview without mentioning it but...THE ENTIRE OFFENSIVE LINE IS PLAYING THIS WEEK! HUZZAH!
Jack Allen hasn't played in a month, so there will be some rust to shake off but it makes me giddy to think that the unit which was supposed to be the biggest strength of this season's team will FINALLY be taking the field intact. I have said it before, but it is almost impossible to overstate just how important this is.
Anyone who has watched MSU recently has seen the lack of movement in the running game. Even two weeks ago against Indiana, the Spartans really didn't run the ball well at all until the 4th quarter. Some of this has to do with every team blitzing like crazy, but clearly the hog mollies were not where they needed to be health-wise. With the elder Allen finally back, the rest of the line can fall into place and the Spartans will have an All-American three-year starter, not a first-timer, calling out protections.
The running back rotation will be interesting. Madre London is expected to be back, but all four running backs are listed as co-starters, so expect the "by committee" approach to continue.
A fully healthy offensive line should be able to open up holes against a Nebraska defense that is giving up an average of 30.5 points a game to FBS opponents. Sorry, South Alabama.
We are all familiar with the special teams issues the Spartans have had all season, but things actually went pretty well against Indiana. Now that I've mentioned it, I'm sure it'll all go right back in the toilet, but hey, what can you do?
Jake Hartbarger seemed to find his stroke against the Hoosiers, allowing the coverage units to get downfield and hold Indiana's punt returners largely in check. The Michael Geiger experience was largely positive, as he made a 21 yard field goal and all seven of his extra point attempts. RJ Shelton even had a nice 58 yard kick return. All in all, a good showing for the beleaguered special teams units.
Good news for this week is that Nebraska doesn't have any special teamers worth fearing. Westerkamp is the main punt returner with Pierson-El sidelined, but his longest return is only 24 yards. Several players have returned kicks this season, with running back Jordan Stevenson and wideout Stanley Morgan Jr. leading the way. Morgan Jr. has been more explosive, registering a long return of 42 yards.
The kicker, Drew Brown is 15-21 on the season with a long of 50, but four of his misses are from 40+. Basically, he makes the ones he should, but force him long and it's a little more of a toss-up.
Bottom Line and Prediction
At the start of the year, I would have ranked this as Michigan State's third or fourth toughest game of the year behind only Oregon, Ohio State and maybe Michigan. Man, was I wrong.
The Huskers are in complete disarray and there are already rumblings that Mike Riley might be shown the door after only a year. At first glance that seems like an overreaction but for a program that has let guys like Bill Callahan and Pelini go after eight and nine win seasons, firing a coach who might not get to five seems downright reasonable.
Riley will have his troops ready to play. They need to win out to retain bowl eligibility and perhaps save their coach's job. I think Armstrong and the offense will score some points but unless he can shake his nasty turnover habit and play his best game of the season, it won't be enough.
Cook will have another stellar performance and the running game will come back to life behind a healthy offensive line. The bye week came at the perfect time for the Spartans and it will show in this one.