As someone who has a series of problems, I spent the Thursday night before Labor Day watching Minnesota host Nebraska in the first Big Ten action of the college football season, and what an experience that was. The Gophers won 13-10, and it was a painful watch. Knowing both teams were on MSU’s schedule to close out October and open November, I added them to the win column, operating on the assumption that MSU would have a permanent head coach, a reasonably functional offense, and a defense that could compete with the middle third of the Big Ten.
The Spartans enter this matchup with Nebraska on a 6 game losing streak, a streak kicked off in the wee hours of the morning after the comfortable win over Richmond and has continued through last weekend’s struggles in Minneapolis. For the final time this season, Spartan Stadium will host a football game as Nebraska comes to town. Just who are these Huskers?
The Season So Far
After prodigal son Scott Frost flamed out in Lincoln last season, Nebraska needed to try restarting the machine for the 5th time since unceremoniously firing Frank Solich for the crime of winning 9 games consistently. Matt Rhule, the ex-Carolina Panthers and Baylor head coach was given the task of restoring Nebraska football to the “winning tradition” the patches on their jerseys still proclaim.
The winning tradition was well in the rear view mirror in 2022. The Huskers finished the tumultuous season 4-8, with a 5 game losing streak covering much of October and November. Interim coach Mickey Joseph wasn’t retained, and Rhule was brought in to pick up the pieces in 2023.
As you can see, Rhule can command the room. Nebraska’s program, for the first time in decades, isn’t a John Deere combine with an empty driver’s seat. The Huskers who wilted at the first sign of trouble have become a resilient, tough group.
Nebraska is sitting at 5-3, just one win away from bowl eligibility for the first time since 2016. Last week, Nebraska took care of business against Purdue 31-14 at home. The Cornhuskers haven’t lost a game since their September 30th matchup with the asterisk-carrying Michigan team, who blew them out at home. Outside of that Michigan game, their only two losses were in the opener to Minnesota and then a week later in the home debut of Deion Sanders’ Colorado Buffaloes.
All that’s to say, they’re not bad. And they’re on a 3 game winning streak.
Like every team in the Big Ten West (and most in the Big Ten, if we’re being honest), Nebraska’s strength is not on the offensive side of the ball. Marcus Satterfield’s unit has laid a few eggs over the course of the season, none worse than in the 3 losses the team has suffered, where they tallied 10, 14, and 7 points respectively.
The Cornhuskers are jarringly ineffective through the air, ranking 127th in FBS football in passing offense this season. Georgia Tech transfer Jeff Sims started the season at quarterback, starting in the first two games against Minnesota and Colorado. Against the Buffs, Sims was supplanted by sophomore Heinrich Haarberg, who took the job and ran with it. Haarberg is a 6’5 quarterback and has become the focus of the entire Husker offense. In addition to being the solidified starter at quarterback, Haarberg leads the team in rushing by more than 100 yards. A feat made more impressive by the fact that sacks count negatively toward quarterback rushing yardage in the college game. Satterfield has incorporated more traditional Nebraska style option runs out of the I-formation.
At running back, Anthony Grant is the leader. The senior has nearly double the carries of his teammate and fellow native of Buford, Georgia Gabe Ervin Jr. The Nebraska tailbacks have combined for 4 touchdowns on the season, as many as Heinrich Haarberg has tallied on his own. There’s essentially no pass catching threat out of the Nebraska backfield, as Grant and Ervin have 5 combined receptions on the season.
At receiver, Billy Kemp leads the team in receptions and yardage by a significant margin. Kemp has only found the endzone once this season. Tight end Thomas Fidone has been the primary scoring threat for Nebraska, piling up 4 touchdowns on the season. Marcus Washington and Jaylen Lloyd have potential to be home run hitters at receiver, but don’t attract the volume of Kemp and Fidone.
The Nebraska offense is turnover prone, ranking 13th in the Big Ten in fumbles lost. MSU will certainly be aware of this, and try to take advantage of this tendency.
Tony White is in his first year coaching Nebraska’s defense, coming from Dino Babers’ staff at Syracuse. White’s defense is the strength of this Cornhusker squad, ranking 5th in the Big Ten in total defense, and 2nd in the league in rushing defense. Nate Carter could be in for a challenging day.
Isaac Gifford, the junior defensive back, leads the team in total tackles with 55, and he’s deflected 7 passes and picked off a Louisiana Tech pass in their matchup in September. Fellow DB Tommi Hill has grabbed 3 interceptions, including 2 against Purdue last week.
Linebacker Jimari Butler leads the team in sacks with 4.5, and is a force in the pass rush.
The #Huskers play a lot of guys on defense. One who I'll be watching?— Steve Marik (@Steve_Marik) September 23, 2023
After missing Minnesota with an injury, he played 13 snaps at Colorado and 20 against NIU. Had his first career sack at CU and his second vs the Huskies.
Against NIU, he rotated in at DE. pic.twitter.com/nU5atNjtMO
Nash Hutmacher, the 6’4, 330 lb defensive lineman from South Dakota trails Butler in sacks, but his stature is enormous in the trenches - he will be a major roadblock for Michigan State’s underachieving line and raw quarterbacks.
How worried should we be?
This is one of the last reasonably winnable games on the schedule, and as we get closer to kickoff, it feels less winnable all the time. Nebraska is turnover-prone, and their offense is a classic Big Ten West unit. MSU’s defense has been the least frustrating unit of the three, and they have a legitimate chance to force Nebraska into bad positions.
Unfortunately, we saw what happened with that defense against Minnesota, forcing early fumbles, converting them into field goals, and then running out of gas late as the Gophers found offensive life.
Meanwhile, MSU’s offense continues to be in disarray. Katin Houser was underwhelming against Minnesota, and couldn’t lead the offense even when given tremendous field position. Sam Leavitt looked like he could be the 2023 version of 2013 Connor Cook, seeing game action and sparking the offense. Whoever starts at QB, they’ll face a legitimate challenge against the Nebraska defense.
Get ready for a rockfight at Spartan Stadium, one more time before we get to turn the page on this frustrating era of Spartan football.