Like two trains passing in the night, Nebraska’s rapidly developing defense caught up to the nowhere-near-expected offense last week, but the gap only grew after the Michigan game. As of right now, Nebraska’s defense is more than 10 percent better than the offense on a per play basis when compared against the national average. Step forward and claim your prize if you projected that coming into the season.
It is fortuitous timing for the Huskers however, as I think this de facto division title game comes down to the how Nebraska stacks up defensively rather than how the offense manages against a terrific Michigan State defense.
Let’s dig in…
I didn’t think that Michigan State was better than Nebraska back in the preseason. I was quite confident, however, that the Spartans’ defense would be the best unit in the Big Ten and it seemed obvious that Michigan State would be better in 2013 than it looked in 2012 where there were an extraordinary number of close losses. When asked on a radio show in July who I would make the favorite in the Legends Division, I chose Michigan State based on schedule and the two factors mentioned above. So far, it’s been a text book case of the Pythagorean Wins Theorem at work.
Last year’s Michigan State team was a full win below its expected total. Over the past six seasons, teams in that spot have improved their record more than 63 percent of the time and the Spartans have already crossed that threshold. You can consider this season something of a course correction then, for 2012 where Michigan State lost five games by four points or less.
Or maybe 2012 was a return to the mean for 2010, where Mark Dantonio somehow wrung 11 wins out of a squad that looked more like a nine-win team. Either way, taking the last five years of the Dantonio era as a whole shows a Michigan State team that’s been slightly better than could be expected based on point totals.
That’s what having a stout defense and winning a bunch of close games will do for you.
What you need to know about Michigan State is what you probably already know — the defense is quite good. Like, almost break-the-chart good. Have a look:
Those are some hard-to-believe numbers. Michigan State is nearly 65 percent better than the national average at stopping the run, almost 31 percent better against the pass and more than 39 percent better overall at not giving up yards on every single play. The Spartans have had some pretty good defenses over the years under defensive coordinator Pat Narduzzi, but not this good.
With that out of the way, the chart also shows just how much Michigan State needs that defense because the offense falls below average in all three areas. The Spartans’ run game isn’t terrible, which explains why this team is 8-1. It’s an age-old combo — play things close to the vest, win the field position battle and exert enormous pressure via a playmaking defense.
Nebraska, however, is a much more balanced team. The Huskers are only truly elite in the run game and those numbers have tailed off some as Nebraska has moved into conference play and lost a series of starting offensive linemen. But it’s still good. By far the best Michigan State has faced. One big advantage for the Huskers here is Ameer Abdullah. It’s going to be tough for him on Saturday. I’d be shocked if he cracked 100 yards, but it doesn’t change the fact that he is the single best offensive weapon for either team in this game. That’s a valuable ace to hold and, if you’re the Nebraska staff, you have to play it often. Even if Abdullah is only managing 3 yards per carry against a defense used to giving up half that, that’s enough to make things slightly easier for Tommy Armstrong Jr. in the passing game. And make no mistake, he’s going to have to make some great throws this weekend if Nebraska’s going to have success.
Elsewhere, Nebraska’s pass defense is slowly creeping back towards Bo Pelini levels. The coverage was good and tight against Michigan and avoiding the deep ball will be important.
Look at the graph above as a whole and you might see an average team in Nebraska. Other than the rushing numbers, the Huskers per play stats are all hovering right around the national average. I think that’s a benefit in this game.
If you ever played Nintendo’s “Ice Hockey,” you’ll recall that you could create a team using any combination of three different types of players in four slots. There was the fast skinny guy who didn’t have much power to shoot or fight off checks. Sweden had three of these dudes. Then there was the big fat guy who had a wicked slap shot and would lay people flat with his checks but was a tad slow. He was powerful to the extreme. Russia, or USSR as it was still known then, played two fat checkers at all times. The last option was the medium guy. He wasn’t elite at anything, but he didn’t have glaring weaknesses either. Far be it from me to tell you how to manage your 8-bit international hockey rosters, but I always tried to outfit my team with at least two of them.
Nebraska is a medium guy right now, Michigan State is the bruiser. Which is better? We’ll find out tomorrow.
HOW YOU’LL KNOW NEBRASKA’S IN GOOD SHAPE
Did you like the way the Michigan game was played? Hard fought yards, a war of punts? Hope so because I think that’s the kind of game Nebraska needs to play on Saturday. For as good as Michigan State is at stopping the run, it’s worth noting that they’ve faced the fewest rushing attempts (241) of all the FBS teams at this point. That’s either a case of the Spartans’ reputation pushing teams off the running game in advance or their actual success forcing teams away from it in-game. Either way, I think the Huskers should make a serious effort to make the Spartans face 40 or so rushing attempts. Will two yard gains in the first quarter become six yard gains in the fourth? We don’t really know because no team has really tried it yet. To do that, Nebraska will have to keep it close. If this game is 10-10 going into the fourth quarter, you’d have to think Nebraska’s the favorite at that point given the home crowd and the fact that, at that point, the pressure is all on Michigan State. From the Nebraska perspective, I don’t think it’s possible for this game to be too ugly. The uglier the better.
WHEN TO WORRY
Watch how the referees are letting the defensive backs play early in this one. If Michigan State is allowed to clutch and grab and bully the Nebraska receivers without fear of a flag, that’s bad news for the Huskers. If the receivers can’t get open, it frees up the Spartans’ already very good front seven to go hunting. Tommy Armstrong deserves better than that.
Such a good helmet. Such a strong helmet. How strong? Strong enough that this is the only time I will abide an asymmetrical helmet stripe. It’s allowed here because it actually does mimic, sort of, the plume atop a Spartan helmet. Points for verisimilitude. Beyond that, however, Michigan State’s uniforms occasionally feel like a missed opportunity. There’s not too much to complain about with the green home set other than these pants which feature a needlessly truncated pants stripe. (And MSU has plain white pants, they don’t even have to wear these!) On the road whites, there’s some shoulder detailing that really brings nothing to the party. Don’t get me wrong, this is still a very strong uniform set, but it could so easily be a home run rather than just a triple simply by, well, keeping things more simple. Spartan is an adjective too. Michigan State is close, but not quite there so I’ll offer some help: It should just look like this.