It’s November now and we can really start to see the end of this miserable football season approaching. But Michigan State still has four games left to play and it starts tomorrow with a visit from the Nebraska Cornhuskers. Nebraska is on the verge of bowl eligibility and MSU is on the verge of... uh... hmm... I got nothing. Let’s treat this as a game of Mad Libs and whoever comes up with the best ending to that sentence will win something.
But before you work on those answers, please take the time to read the responses I received from Jarek, Jill, Mike, and Todd from Corn Nation about our opponent tomorrow. They definitely went above and beyond sending us a multitude of answers. Without further ado, here is this week’s Q&A:
TOC: Nebraska is currently 5-3, a game away from becoming bowl eligible for the first time since 2016. Do Nebraska fans seem pleased with how this season is going? Is there belief that good times may be coming back to Lincoln?
Jarek: The overall record I would say has the Husker fans pleasantly surprised given the maladies beset upon the offense. Many fans (myself included) suggested bowl eligibility should be obtainable for this group, given we can’t be any worse than what we have been. Matt Rhule has instilled a belief not seen in a fair number of years due to putting guys in positions to succeed and development of young guys who have gotten a lot of playing time.
Jill: Most fans (me included) felt that bowl eligibility would be a huge step forward. Not losing games by spiraling after stupid mistakes late in game is a nice bonus. As far as “good times” being back in Lincoln. We are a long way from that.
Mike: Nebraska fans are relieved that the Huskers haven’t lost any games in October that they should have won. That’s a change they can appreciate and smile at. But Husker fans’ ideas of what “good times” are are still tainted by past successes.. and somewhat of a resignation because those good times may not be achievable in the 21st century for Nebraska.
Todd: Many Nebraska fans are happy with the fact that the team is sitting at 5-3 right now. There are some that can’t let go of the past that are critical of different aspects of the team that pop off with some ridiculous comments, but overall there is optimism in Husker Nation.
2. As mentioned, you are 5-3, but your wins have all been against teams lower in the standings (NW, Illinois, Purdue) and a couple of non-Power 5 teams (N. Illinois, LA Tech) while your losses have been to two teams currently tied for their respective division lead (Minnesota, um) and a then-ranked Colorado team. Looking at your remaining schedule (@ MSU, vs. Maryland, @ Wisconsin, vs. Iowa), which of those games are you confident in winning?
Jarek: I would say Michigan State and Iowa. Michigan State is in a free fall at the moment and can’t work out what its biggest problem is at the moment. Iowa is well….Iowa. The defense, albeit good, can’t always bail out an offense that somehow has gotten worse. The o-line and running game are worse than last year, and the backup QB and WR core are somehow worse than what they had.
Jill: I am not confident in anything. I think it is possible for Nebraska to win any of those. It is also possible to lose any of those. A 2-2 split would be really nice but the injury fairy is hanging over the program like the Grim Reaper. Who knows what the next few weeks hold in store.
Mike: There’s nobody on Nebraska’s schedule that the Huskers can’t beat…but there’s also nobody on Nebraska’s schedule that they can’t lose to either. I like Nebraska’s chances this week against Sparty… and then after that… who knows? I honestly think there’s a non-zero chance that Nebraska winds up in Indy in December…and also has their season end on Black Friday on a four-game losing streak.
Todd: None. Our boys could win them all and they could lose them all.
3. Jeff Sims started the season at quarterback, but it was not long before he went down and now Heinrich Haarberg is the man under center. What are the early thoughts on the sophomore? Does he seem to be improving as the season progresses?
Jarek: I got to watch Haarberg in his high school days as he went to my alma mater, and my early thoughts are that his throwing motion has changed and not for the better. I recall his arm angle being higher up than what he has shown this season, but it could be I’m seeing it against taller opposition than he faced in high school. Overall I’d say he’s improved some aspects, such as actually pitching the ball on the option, and overall pocket presence, but he still needs to work on throwing the ball away and not locking onto specific receivers.
Jill: Sims played through the Colorado game until suffering a high ankle sprain (despite it being obvious that he needed to be pulled long before that). He was going to have to sit multiple weeks regardless because of the injury. Rhule did announce a week or two ago that he is rolling with Haarberg even though Sims is nearing full recovery. Both have a tendency to put the ball on the ground or throw it to the other team, but HH’s fumbles and interceptions haven’t hurt Nebraska as much as Sims’ did. His pedigree as a Nebraska boy from down the road and resemblance to throwback Husker QBs helps him a lot in terms of fan support. He is definitely stepping up and demonstrating some of the intangibles he needs as the starter. Heinrich will never be mistaken for an Air Raid QB but the staff is adjusting to what he can do well and coaching up his weak points as best they can. One thing to note is that Sims has shown nothing but support and remains highly engaged on the sidelines, despite the negativity thrown his way Heinrich’s style of play as a running QB means we are likely to need Sims again at some point.
Mike: Sims is a great leader and talented athlete, but he’s simply way too turnover prone playing quarterback. Hence, Haarberg held onto the job once Sims recovered because he’s a little better with ball security.
Todd: Haarberg has done a good job and has shown progress, though it has been inconsistent. He does turn the ball over and is lucky those numbers are not higher. He is a tough kid which endears him to fans, as well as the fact that he comes from a small Nebraska high school. He has shown the capacity to come up with a big play with his feet and through the air. He’s an average quarterback with above average toughness.
4. Sticking with Haarberg a minute, in addition to being your QB, he also is leading Nebraska in rushing yards. Fun fact: he even has a couple receptions on the season. Would you classify him as a dual-threat QB? Also, tell us about your skill position players. Is Matt Rhule using a running back by committee approach because no one has separated themself? Is there anyone among the RBs or receivers that should be more of a concern to opponents than their stats suggest?
Jarek: I wouldn’t classify Haarberg as “dual threat”, I’d classify him as more “old school Nebraska”. What I mean by that is he is a talented running QB who doesn’t need to throw a lot, and when he has to throw a lot the stats show he’s not overly accurate. The great running QBs of old were never known to be overly-efficient passers, because they were too busy beating you with their legs. The “running back by committee” happens to be anyone with two healthy legs. 3rd and 4th string guys like Johnson and Grant are being used, while a wide receiver in Joshua Fleeks is used to spell both guys when tired. As far as receivers who people should be wary of, both Malachi Coleman and Jaidyn Doss are guys who are starting to come into their own. They will be useful as the final few weeks tick down.
Jill: Haarberg needs to develop more dual threat capability. He is a dangerous runner that will benefit from taking a step or two forward in the pass game.
The skill players? They’re all in the medical tent. The running back by committee approach is because we’ve lost the top two backs to season-ending injuries. Anthony Grant is a dangerous runner but has developed fumble issues. Emmit Johnson is a freshman pressed into service before he’s ready - but he’s showing positive signs. The next back in is Fleeks, who started the season as a wideout. The receivers have fared even worse with the preseason top four projected receivers all either out for the season or leaving the team. Again, two freshmen are being leaned on before they are truly ready but are also showing signs of progress. One that Jarek didn’t mention is the tight ends. Thomas Fidone is a five star recruit who has missed two seasons to serious knee injuries. He has shown flashes. Now, he just needs to raise his level of consistency. Quality tight end play could be Haarberg’s new best friend.
Todd: I do think he fits in the category of a dual threat quarterback, but I don’t think that going into the season that coaches planned on the quarterback – whoever it was going to be – to be a primary ball carrier. To play to some of Haarbergs strengths and to deal with a shortage of running backs, they have put in the option and used it quite a bit. I do not think that was in the plan at the start of the season. At this point of the season there is no running back by committee because the team lost the top two and is relying on a freshman who didn’t play until the last few games and a fumble-prone guy that was the leading rusher last year, as well as a converted receiver. We have seen similar attrition with the wide receiver corps. When you look at Nebraska’s offense, it is really a 2nd/3rd team offense due to the number of injuries at all of the position groups.
5. Let’s shift to the defense. What is your base formation? What level of your defense is the best? Who is the one player that MSU needs to be most concerned about in scheming their offensive game plan?
Jarek: The base formation is a 3-3-5. The best level of defense is hard to answer, as it seems lately the answer changes, but in a very good way. Overall I would have to answer the defensive line, as it provides a fantastic pass rush with strong run stopping capabilities. The one guy to look out for is Nash Hutmacher, the “Polar Bear”. An undefeated state wrestling champ in high school, he is a classic big man who can cause multiple issues, even if you double team him. I’m jinxing things by doing this, but he might become the most dominant interior defensive lineman at Nebraska since some dude named Suh.
Jill: Tony White’s scheme is described as a 3-3-5 but he will have the Blackshirts line up in multiple fronts. The line and linebackers have been the most consistent in showing excellent play but the defensive backs are no slouches either. I think the Polar Bear is a great player to single out. If you want another name, watch Luke Reimer. He missed some games because of a staph infection (I believe) but he is all over the field when healthy. He’ll wreck plays from multiple attack points.
Todd: As stated above it is billed as a 3-3-5, but it is basically multiple defense that generally has an odd front with some big dudes putting a lot of pressure on the center of the O-line. The line has been outstanding this year and in my opinion is the strength of the defense. They are strong and deep. It is not unusual to see six or more guys rotating in. The linebackers have been okay and the backs have played very well. One guy? Nash Hutmacher in the middle up front. He is a beast and has caused all kinds of trouble for offenses.
6. What is the one thing Nebraska needs to do to win on Saturday?
Jarek: I would suggest stop turning the ball over, but even that didn’t prevent Nebraska from winning last Saturday. In all reality though, for the love of God, stop turning the ball over. I don’t care if they use duct tape, gorilla glue, bubble wrap, shrink wrap, a suitcase with a lock and keycode access, Nebraska needs to find a way to hang onto the darn pigskin.
Jill: Run the damn ball. Hang on to the damn ball. Occasionally throw the ball over the top of the defense to one of the fast freshman. Get a hold of the damn ball when the other team has it.
Sorry, that’s four things.
Todd: Stop turning the ball over. That’s it.
Bonus Question: Predict the final score?
Jarek: Nebraska 20 Michigan State 10
Jill: Nebraska 21 Michigan State 17. One of MSU’s scores is due to a Husker turnover deep on their own side of the field.
Todd: Nebraska 35-21
Well, there you have it, TOC Nation. Three more guest contributors thinking their team will beat us. I don’t have it in me to argue, or even to say that I disagree.
Thank you Jarek and Jill and Mike and Todd.