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Numbers Game: The Outlier

Of all the games I’ve covered since Nebraska joined the Big Ten, last year’s Michigan State game is my favorite. This is because it was the weirdest Nebraska game in recent memory.

The Huskers 28-24 win last November to keep control of the division was such an odds-defying game that I spent most of my post-game column that night simply cataloging all of the strangeness. Brett Maher missing a chip-shot field goal? A seemingly back-breaking Taylor Martinez fumble at the line of scrimmage turns into a 15-yard gain for Nebraska? None of it made sense.

But with a year to consider that game, and another dominant Michigan State defense coming to Lincoln this Saturday, nothing was as strange as how well Nebraska ran the ball that day. The Spartans entered that game allowing an average of 91.2 yards per game. Nebraska had that by the end of the first quarter as the Huskers rolled to 313 on the day.

It was the most rushing yards allowed by Michigan State since Minnesota had 327 at the end of 2005. Since the start of 2011, the Huskers’ total was 93 yards more than any opponent had managed against the Spartans. It’s hard to fully appreciate it until you see it graphically. So here you go:

 

Michigan States Rush Defense

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To put that in further perspective, Michigan State has allowed just 391 rushing yards this season. So how did 313 last year happen?

The quick answer is Taylor Martinez. In what should go down as the best game of his career, Martinez had 205 yards on 17 carries including jaunts of 59- and 71-yards. Watching the game again, offensive coordinator Tim Beck used Martinez masterfully.

The Huskers were in the shotgun for all but a handful of plays and the vast majority of the run plays had at least a zone read look, in the backfield at least, right from the snap. It was a plan designed to take advantage of the Spartans’ aggressive defensive line and preference to blitz. It worked quite well as Martinez, for the most part, made the correct reads and, by the time the Huskers’ game-winning drive rolled around, Michigan State was so worried about the quarterback that they had effectively stopped blitzing.

That makes this year’s game interesting because 1) Martinez isn’t playing in this one, and 2) the Spartans’ run defense, statistically speaking, is more than 50 percent better than it was a year ago. Let’s tackle those in order.

With Tommy Armstrong Jr. at quarterback instead of Martinez, the Huskers have run a little less zone read action but have become quite fond of the speed option, both as a designed play and a favored audible. Armstrong runs it better than Martinez did, but you can fully expect Michigan State, after seeing how Nebraska used that play against Michigan, to have a pretty good plan in place to defend that. Can Armstrong run the zone read as well as Martinez? He doesn’t have the quick-start speed of Taylor and, for whatever reason, Beck has been more reticent to run that play as often with Armstrong. It seems likely that Nebraska will have to use a slightly altered attack to slow down the Spartans this year, but don’t undervalue the contribution of Ameer Abdullah last year.

Last time out against Michigan State, Abdullah had 22 carries for 110 yards. Tough yards. He averaged 5 yards per carry without having a run longer than 15. There wasn’t anything gimmicky about Abdullah’s game last year. He made the runs then that have become commonplace this year. He’ll probably have to do that again this Saturday, and he’s better now than he was a year ago.

But so is Michigan State’s defense. The stats are eye-popping, but there are some who have questioned what type of offenses those numbers have come against. They should stop asking that because, while the Spartans have played a slightly below average schedule in terms of offense, Michigan State’s numbers are so ridiculously low that they’d be very good against almost anyone. Here’s how the Spartans’ numbers change when adjusted for strength of schedule (FBS games only):

 

MSU Defensive Stats

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Not a huge difference, huh? Even with a slate of relatively weak offensive teams — only two opponents, Indiana and Illinois, rank in the top half nationally — the Spartans are still elite defensively. More so than last year. The odds of Nebraska putting up anywhere close to the 313 yards on the ground it did in 2012 seem remote.

But I don’t think Nebraska needs to have another game far above what anyone would expect against perhaps the nation’s best defense. It just needs to be slightly better if the Huskers’ defense can match the Spartans’ effort. That’s the key here. Nebraska’s defense appears to be getting better and Michigan State’s offense, despite some improvements with Connor Cook at quarterback, still isn’t a totally efficient group.

Nebraska has to hold its own without the ball this time around and, if it does and this is a four quarter game, suddenly Michigan State is playing not to lose its lead in the division, on the road, with that 0-7 record all-time against the Huskers in the back of their minds.

Last year, the Huskers did something no team had done against Michigan State in more than 100 games. It was a strange thing.

If Nebraska gets a win in this year’s game, my guess is it will look a lot more common but it’ll count just the same.