Is Nebraska going to be able to run the ball on Saturday?
The more I look at the Huskers' matchup with Michigan State the more I think it's the key question for this game. Nebraska ranks 17th nationally at 5.65 yards per carry. The Spartans' defense is allowing 2.55, second only to Clemson.
Only two teams have averaged better than 4 yards per carry against Michigan State: Purdue (4.77) and Penn State (6.41). Both lost. Both lost due to some bad turnovers luck, but still lost. Mark Dantonio's Spartans are again capable of uglying things up, and they're perfectly happy rolling around in the muck. It's to their advantage.
The easiest way to turn a football game into a fistfight? Stop the run. While the Huskers are plenty dangerous through the air, gains on the ground have been their best foot forward in 2018. It sets up as one of those classic good-on-good matchups that make November football fun.
Let's take a quick look at some stats that go beyond just yards via SBNation's advanced stats profiles:
MARGINAL EFFICIENCY: This is a pretty simple measure, but it gets right to the point: How good is this team at X? We're talking about running the ball/stopping the run here, so marginal efficiency takes the expected success rate on running plays and compares a team's actual success rate to determine if they're over or underperforming.
When the Nebraska has run the ball it is 0.1 percentage points below expectation. That ranks 11th in the country. It's a negative number because it's not easy to stay on schedule while running the ball. That's not really what running the ball is for in today’s game, but the Huskers have been about as good as expected and that's very good in context.
Michigan State, however, has been great. The Spartans are holding teams 18.6 percentage points below expectation on running plays. I'll be fascinated in how Nebraska attacks this Michigan State front when it does run the ball. More on that in a bit.
MARGINAL EXPLOSIVENESS: Here's an area where the Huskers might have an edge. Using the same principle as above, this measures how big (or valuable, rather) a team's big plays actually are. Nebraska ranks 15th nationally here. It's getting big plays in the run game and those plays are positively increasing expected outcomes on drives. (Or Devine Ozigbo just takes it 60 yards to the house, that ultimate increase in expecation. That works, too.)
Michigan State is merely average in this category, ranking 60th. While the Spartans have only given up 22 runs of 10-plus yards (2nd) and four runs of 20-plus yards (5th), they have also allowed a few really big runs. It's not easy to gash the Spartans, but not impossible either.
OPPORTUNITY RATE: This one goes more towards the trenches as it measures what percentage of carries gain at least 4 yards (assuming 4 yards are available, of course). This has been a huge area of improvement for the Huskers in 2018. Nebraska's opportunity rate of 53.7 percent ranks 13th nationally this season. Last year it was 33.8 percent, which ranked 112th. Not bad considering the line personnel isn't drastically different from a season ago.
Here's another one where the Spartans are great. Michigan State is allowing 4 yards on a carry just 34.7 percent of the time, the second-best mark in the country.
STUFF RATE: What percentage of runs get stopped at or behind the line of scrimmage. For all of its success elsewhere, Nebraska has had 18.5 percent of its runs stuffed. That ranks 66th, almost dead average.
And, as you may have guessed based on opportunity rate, Michigan State lives in opponent backfields. The Spartans are stuffing 29.4 percent of runs this season, first nationally.
Look at those last two categories in tandem and I'll be really interested in the mix of inside and outside runs for the Huskers. Michigan State's strength on the interior could push Nebraska to attack the edges, but the Spartans are fast and, in classic Dantonio fashion, the secondary is a big part of the run defense. Nebraska could find some room out there, particularly with Adrian Martinez, but Michigan State didn't get where it is against the run by breaking down often.
Of course, Nebraska's biggest advantage here might be that it's well-rounded, but it might have to reverse engineer its attack a bit from what it's been.
"The run game opens up the pass game," Scott Frost said Monday. "If you can’t run it, it’s tough to score points. If you rely on your pass game, [you] become one dimensional. We’ve been pretty balanced on offense and that’s going to be a big challenge this week because we’re playing the number one rushing defense in the country."
While it's pretty clear Frost's preference there, this game might be one where the Huskers will have to pass to set up the run. And it's going to be a ton of fun to watch.
The Grab Bag
- The November issue of Hail Varsity is on its way this week, and it comes with a unique cover.
- Nebraska’s seniors talk about their final game at Memorial Stadium.
- Recruiting analyst Greg Smith spoke with 4-star defensive end Ty Robinson about his upcoming visit.
- Derek Peterson on Devine Ozigbo.
Today’s Song of Today
Brandon is the Managing Editor for Hail Varsity and has covered Nebraska athletics for the magazine and web since 2012, Hail Varsity’s first season on the scene. His sports writing has also been featured by Fox Sports, The Guardian and CBS Sports.