Plenty of plays to look at in today’s film review of the Michigan State game. Here are the five that mattered most. (Video below with the appropriate time stamp in parentheses.)
1) 1st Quarter, 4:10 (0:12), 59-yard Martinez run: Out of a four-wide, shotgun set Nebraska goes to the zone read. It’s essentially a zone read-power with left guard Cole Pensick pulling. Spartans’ all-everything defensive end William Gholston is unblocked and goes for Ameer Abdullah while Martinez keeps. The Huskers had their tight ends in the slot, giving a serious size advantage to Ben Cotton on the play-side safety and Pensick does a good job delivering a block about 11 yards downfield. From there, it’s a foot race but Martinez can’t outrun the angle of cornerback Darqueze Dennard. Still, a staple play of the Huskers’ playbook this year, flawlessly executed. It was a sign of things to come.
2) 2nd Quarter, 7:05 (0:40), Maxwell 46-yard touchdown pass to Lippett: When Stanley Jean-Baptiste learns when and how to play the ball in pass coverage, he could be a legitimately dangerous cornerback. That’s the sort of thing that comes with experience and that’s one thing Jean-Baptiste doesn’t have at the moment. Here, he’s essentially a safety after P.J. Smith rotated down with motion across the formation. Jean-Baptiste and Daimion Stafford get tangled up a little coming across the middle – a simple communication issue – but Stanley still gets back in time to make the play. He just doesn’t, overrunning the ball. Tough way to give up a touchdown but, all in all, not terrible technique.
3) 2nd Quarter, 3:23 (0:52), Martinez 71-yard touchdown run: Facing a second-and-8, Martinez audibles out of what he would reveal on Monday was the quarterback counter play Nebraska has run to great success in Big Ten play this season. Michigan State’s defense shifts, so Martinez gets back into the original play. Two things make this play work: 1) After faking the handoff, Martinez literally pauses and waits for Ben Cotton to come across the formation and get a block on Gholston, and 2) Kenny Bell does much the same thing, stopping his route like he’s going to run block, then darting inside (taking his man with him) to get a crucial crack back block that takes out both the safety and the linebacker. This time, Dennard doesn’t catch Martinez. Michigan State hadn’t give up a run longer than 50-yards since 2010. Martinez had two in the first half.
4) 4th Quarter, 10:59 (2:08), Dennard intercepts Martinez: The play that could have sealed the game for Michigan State. Facing second-and-goal from the MSU 5-yard line, Nebraska runs a rub route with wide out Quincy Enunwa and Cotton coming underneath. Michigan State’s seen this before. Dennard doesn’t go with Enunwa and is sitting right there when Martinez throws the out. For all of his improvements this season, if there’s a criticism of Martinez still to be made it’s that he still occasionally gets locked in on the throw that should be there rather than the throw that is there. In this case, the safety also went with Cotton – meaning this was probably a hunch play on Dennard’s part – and Enunwa was open for an easy touchdown pass at the back of the end zone. Instead, it’s an interception but a penalty on the return wipes out the touchdown.
5) 4th Quarter, 0:40 (2:49), Martinez 38-yard completion to Reed: Fourth-and-10, with the game on the line. In general, a team has about a one in five chance of converting on this down and distance. As with a similar play on third-and-10 two drives earlier – that one was a completion to Jamal Turner – MSU elects to rush only three and drop eight. Nebraska again finds a hole in the zone. Here’s how Martinez said he saw it:
I looked left to Kenny (Bell), then to Jamal (Turner), then came all the way back to Kyler (Reed). Luckily he got open…It was 4th-and-10, and I knew I couldn’t just take off and run. I was just trying to scan the field and find an open guy.
I don’t know if Martinez gets through his progression like that a year ago. Now, he does and Nebraska might not have a bigger conversion this season.
From there, you probably remember the rest. The much discussed pass interference call. The touchdown pass to Turner on the same play where the sophomore lost a sure touchdown in the lights against Michigan. (“This time he took off his visor so he could actually see that pass,” Martinez said on Monday. Interesting.)
Nebraska made its share of mistakes on Saturday but Michigan State matched the Huskers in that regard. Executing all the time is the ultimate goal for Bo Pelini and Nebraska, but this game – and largely the season — was defined by some excellent end of the game execution.
More on that tomorrow.