You probably know by now that Michigan State’s defense is quite good. The best in the country according to the stats. While defense across all of college football give up about 4.3 yards per rush on average, the Spartans allow an almost unfathomable 1.62. The rest of the country allows every pass attempt to go for an average of more than seven yards. Michigan State? Less than five.
If numbers like that hold, this Michigan State defense, the one visiting Lincoln on Saturday, deserves to be considered one of the best of the BCS era.
“They’re committed to playing great defense,” coach Bo Pelini said at his Monday press conference. “They’ve had a group that’s kind of grown up together. A lot of these kids are three- and four-year starters. That bodes well for you.
“There’s an attitude to how they play. They play to their strengths on defense. They’re committed to running the football. They’re committed to stopping the run.”
It wouldn’t be inaccurate to call the Spartans an intimidating bunch but Pelini said he isn’t worried about his team backing down from the challenge. And he’s definitely not afraid to throw a redshirt freshman quarterback in Tommy Armstrong out there this week against one of the nation’s best defensive schemes.
“Tommy Armstrong is not going to be intimidated,” Pelini said. “That much I know. But he’s going to be challenged. I will tell you that because they’re good.”
Armstrong, who moved to 5-0 this season as a starter after last week’s win over Michigan, had probably his most impressive game as a passer against the Wolverines. He completed 11-of-19 throws for an average of 7.3 yards per attempt and the game-winning touchdown “pass.” Not eye-popping numbers –Armstrong’s stats against Illinois and South Dakota State were better — but efficient ones against the best defense the Huskers have faced so far in 2013.
And the passing game will be key against a Michigan State team that’s great at stopping the run and loves to blitz after it does.
“If you blitz obviously somebody’s going to be open,” Armstrong said. “You just gotta make sure we put our guys in the right position. We’ve gotta make sure we’re able to identify it and just go out there and run our offense.”
There’s also the matter of what’s at stake on Saturday. Nebraska trails Michigan State by a game in the Legends Division. Win and the Huskers move into a tie with the Spartans but hold the head-to-head tie-breaker. Lose and hopes of a return trip to the Big Ten championship game are gone.
“Most people are saying this is like the divisional championship game,” Armstrong said. “We’re going to treat it like every other week.
“They’re one of the best defenses in the country, but, at the same time, they can be beat.”
A few other notes and tidbits from Nebraska’s weekly press conference:
–Pelini said he doesn’t know if the chances are very good that Taylor Martinez will play for the Huskers again this season.
“It comes down to his foot. His foot hasn’t enabled him to play. There’s no one more frustrated than Taylor. It’s a foot injury that we knew could linger and it really hasn’t gotten much better,” Pelini said.
Martinez did not travel with the team to Michigan last Saturday.
–Elsewhere on the injury front, it’s too early to tell if guard Jake Cotton will be available this week after spraining his MCL against Northwestern. Pelini said tackle Jeremiah Sirles’ knee injury was very similar to Cotton’s and will likely require a few weeks recovery time.
–Running back Ameer Abdullah currently ranks first in the Big Ten and sixth nationally with an average of 134.78 rushing yards per game. His profile has grown as the season has progressed, prompting some to wonder if he’ll explore leaving early for the NFL draft following this season.
“I would be shocked if Ameer was a guy where that was even a thought in his mind right now,” Pelini said. “In my experience, you’re only in college once and, believe me, the NFL is going to be there for Ameer Abdullah. I always believe you’re better off staying and playing it out.”
–In his addition to his explosive running ability, Abdullah has also developed a new skill this season — juggling.
Running backs coach Ron Brown has asked his players to juggle this season to help keep them from focusing on one thing while improving their peripheral vision. So far, so good for Ameer.
“I’m like Bozo the clown now. I can juggle anything, chainsaws, knives, you know me,” he said.
–Defensive end Randy Gregory is also tops in the Big Ten in his most important statistical category — sacks. Gregory is tied with defensive linemen Shilique Calhoun (Michigan State) and Theiren Cockran with 6.5 sacks this season. All three are sophomores.
If you think that’s pretty good for a young player, just wait.
“To be a great player you have to be a complete player and he’s not that yet. He’s got a lot to learn. He’s still really raw in a lot of respects,” Pelini said but added that Gregory has already shown a lot of growth since his first game in August.
Then he paid Gregory one of the best compliments possible for a defensive lineman at Nebraska.
“I’m not throwing him into Suh’s category yet, but I think he can have that type of impact on our program down the line.”