A loss like this is a frustrating paradox. There’s not many other losses in which anyone with a pulse can so easily locate the reason for the loss – the five turnovers. At the same time at a more micro level, the cause of turnovers (fumbles more specifically) are much more difficult to discern.
Tommy Armstrong Jr.’s first interception was the most clear – he threw in front of Kenny Bell in a double-covered zone when he should have thrown the outside out route to a wide open Sam Burtch. That one is a little easier to see from the coach’s tape. Likewise, Nebraska’s bad snap that caused a fumble with Nebraska’s back to the end zone looks like it’s on Cole Pensick – the pulling guard – for staying in too tight to the line with poor timing.
The turnovers shouldn’t be the only significant takeaway from the loss, however. With nearly six crutches on the offensive line and a freshman backup quarterback, Nebraska tied Indiana for most points scored on the Spartans. We’ll also take a look at how Nebraska cracked the Michigan State defense on big plays; something Michigan State hasn’t given up many of this year.
FIRST QUARTER – 14:21 – Terrell Newby fumbled option pitch (YT 0:07:03)
Nebraska’s first fumble was credited to Newby, but there are more parties who deserve a share of the blame. In this particular set, Newby lines up at halfback depth with Ameer Abdullah designated for load blocking. The Spartans have two men on the quarterback run, and it appears that the Huskers have the play blocked correctly.
“He catches the ball, he ought to gain 10 if nothing else,” Coach said.
Newby stayed deep enough, and the error on the play is suddenly divided three ways a split second before the pitch.
Newby turns upfield a step early. Armstrong – now in a tough spot – delivers a pitch just shade behind Newby. Where does the final third of the blame lie? With the Nebraska coaching staff, coach says. Look at the shadows, then look at Newby’s helmet; showing that he’s receiving the pitch looking almost directly in the direction of the sun.
FIRST QUARTER – 2:50 – Armstrong 32-yard TD pass to Sam Burtch (YT 0:37:11)
Tim Beck deserves a lot of credit for game planning and play-calling against the Spartans; the Huskers hung the most rushing yards and total yards on their defense out of any team in the last year. When I asked him about it after the game, Beck downplayed the notion that he has defensive coordinator Pat Narduzzi “figured out,” but plays like this are a good argument in favor of that notion.
The wheel route exploits the press coverage on the outside receiver, Quincy Enunwa in this case. The press corner and safety get preoccupied with Enunwa, leaving Burtch wide open in a seam down the sideline.
The “wheel of fortune” as coach likes to call it, feasts on Michigan State pre-snap coverage that left Burtch uncovered on the line.
THIRD QUARTER – 11:33 – Imani Cross 51-yard touchdown run (YT 1:34:54)
The Michigan State defense only gave up one rushing play of more than 20 yards coming into Memorial Stadium, and the Huskers busted plays of 29 and 51 yards on the ground. On Cross’s long touchdown, it looks like Nebraska stole a page from Baylor’s offensive formation folder, stacking receivers on either side almost outside the numbers.
The Spartans only have five players in the box, even though as coach points out, the other two linebackers will support the run.
“They’re so wide, all they can do is drag down,” Coach said. “There’s no way on earth they can support the run. That’s just mathematics.”
Nebraska has seven hats against five in the box. The linebacker Taiwan Jones at the top of your screen stays in position to play Armstrong on the zone read, and Nebraska is left with five blockers for four defenders, since the zone read leaves defensive end Shilique Calhoun unblocked and in the backfield, out of the play.