photo and story by Patrick Runge
Nebraska football fans are gearing up for the biggest game of the 2014 season, a trip to East Lansing to face the defending Big Ten champion Michigan State Spartans. Last year, Michigan State beat Nebraska 41-28 in an ugly contest that saw NU lose the turnover battle by five (!) against the Spartans.
Most pundits think the Spartans will win on Saturday. But at least one smart and particularly handsome analyst thinks Nebraska will defy the odds and stay undefeated in 2014. Here’s what Nebraska must do to make that happen.
Stats from cfbstats.com.
Take the Ball Away
This is me giving up on a thread I have been pulling for the last two years. If Nebraska stops turning the ball over, it can be so much more successful. And while that is true because, duh, all the evidence before us suggests that such a phase change simply isn’t going to happen.
But things are better this year, right? Nebraska’s turnover margin isn’t nearly as bad as it was last year, right?
Well, yes and no. Right now Nebraska is plus-one in turnover margin, which is certainly far better than the minus-11 NU ended with in 2013.
Where was Nebraska at this stage last year, though? Plus-five. So Nebraska is actually four behind its turnover margin pace from last year—the year that ended at a disastrous minus-11.
In 2014, Nebraska has had six total turnovers. In 2013 at this stage in the season, Nebraska had—you guessed it—six turnovers. And the sad thing is that 2013 marked an improvement for the first five games of the season from 2012 (13) and 2011 (9).
So, I give up. Until proven otherwise, it’s just not reasonable to expect Nebraska to stop turning the ball over. But having a turnover margin so cartoonishly underwater in and of itself will prevent Nebraska from winning games like this and competing for conference titles. If Nebraska gets more turnovers than it gives up (or at least keeps the numbers close), then Nebraska profligacy with the ball on offense will be neutralized.
This is my Doctor Strangelove moment, or How I Learned To Stop Worrying And Love The Turnover.
Stop Jeremy Langford
The conventional wisdom is that the growth of Michigan State quarterback Connor Cook has been the key to the Spartans’ improved offensive attack. And there’s no doubt that Cook’s performance has sparked a revival that vaulted Michigan State to a conference title and national prominence.
But let’s take a look at this season. Michigan State is 3-1, with three wins over hopelessly outmatched opponents. The one loss was on the road, to Oregon.
Against the Ducks, Cook was 29-47 for 343 yards, with two touchdowns and two interceptions. He ended the game with a 128.53 quarterback rating, which is apparently very good according to those who have the foggiest notion of what a quarterback rating means.
So it looks like Cook played well in the Spartans’ loss. Sure, the defense had a lot to do with it, with the whole “giving up 47 points” thing. But how did the other part of Michigan State’s offense look?
Jeremy Langford had 86 yards and a touchdown against Oregon, his second-highest performance of the season. But he got those 86 yards on 24 carries, easily his biggest workload of the season. More importantly, Langford’s yards per carry average against Oregon was 3.58, almost two full yards less than his season average.
In other words, Oregon was able to beat Michigan State fairly convincingly by allowing Cook to play well but (in addition to scoring a lot of points) holding Langford’s yards per carry down. That’s the number to focus on. If the Blackshirts can corral Langford, keeping him under four yards per carry, Nebraska can make Michigan State’s offense one-dimensional and allow NU’s pass rush to work on Cook.
Be More Balanced On Offense
Nebraska fans of a more traditional bent have been thrilled to death with how NU’s offense has looked in the last two games. Against Miami, Nebraska ran the ball 80.5 percent of the time, and against Illinois its run percentage “dropped” to 76.9 percent. Proponents of things like “identity” and “mindset” loved Nebraska’s devotion to the run game, particularly as quarterback Tommy Armstrong has looked less than convincing.
And it does seem that offensive coordinator Tim Beck has undergone a bit of evolution, making sure to give the ball to his best player rather than attempt to achieve balance for its own sake. But just as “balance” on offense on its own is not a laudable goal, neither is having an over-reliance on the running game for its own sake smart strategy.
Michigan State is sixth in the nation in rushing defense, allowing opponents an average of 80.75 yards per game. While Nebraska’s run game is its strength (right now sitting third in the nation with an average of 354.8 yards per game), it’s a fair assumption that Michigan State will at least be able to slow down Abdullah and company.
Now, don’t get me wrong. I’m not saying that Nebraska should sling the ball fifty times on Saturday (particularly given the dreadful weather forecast). Nebraska’s offense will need a healthy dose of Ameer Abdullah to be successful, sticking with him even if it is not successful early.
But there’s “sticking with him” and there’s “80/20 run/pass balance.” Michigan State is simply too good defensively for Nebraska to be that one-dimensional. To win this game, Armstrong simply must make some plays with his arm, either in the short game to get the ball to playmakers in space or taking the lid off the defense with the deep ball.