Kenneth Walker III’s run never had a chance.
It was the first play of the game, and Michigan State had the ball on the 25-yard line. The Spartans came out in 11 personnel (one running back, one tight end). The nation’s leading rusher got a handoff but was rerouted almost immediately, forced to move horizontally further than he wanted before getting north-south.
Damion Daniels’ penetration was the reason for the havoc. He lined up on the inside shoulder of the right guard, drove MSU center Matt Allen into the backfield and caused all the commotion. A second later, linebacker Luke Reimer shot through the gap and wrapped up Walker’s legs for a loss of 3 yards.
Nebraska’s main two inside ‘backers—Reimer, who plays the weak side, or WILL, and Nick Henrich, who plays the middle, or MIKE—have had solid years so far. Reimer leads the Big Ten in tackles with 46 and was the Big Ten Defensive Player of the Week following his career day against Buffalo, where he racked up 16 tackles. Henrich is fifth in the conference with 39 stops. While the d-linemen don’t stuff the stat sheets like Reimer and Henrich do, the d-line’s play in front of them doesn’t go unnoticed.
“They’re holding on to doubles really well and that frees us up,” Reimer said. “We’re just a product of how well our defensive line is playing in all honestly. They’re doing a phenomenal job up front.”
During an appearance on “Sports Nightly” last week, inside linebackers coach Barrett Ruud detailed why having good play in the trenches ultimately helps his room’s players.
“If they’re (d-linemen) getting off the ball, if they’re collecting double teams, that’s usually when we’re free to make tackles,” Ruud said. “I don’t care if it’s Ray Lewis or whoever playing linebacker, if guys are getting up to them all the time, they’re not making as many plays. When the d-line is getting off the ball and occupying blockers, it makes life easier for the second level and I think they’ve done a nice job of that this year.”
Henrich said the d-line—mainly consisting of Daniels, Ben Stille, Ty Robinson and Deontre Thomas—went above and beyond in East Lansing. Henrich finished with nine tackles as he helped limit the Spartan running backs to only 74 yards on 22 carries—an average of 3.3 yards.
“Whenever the inside linebackers are doing well, it’s always a reflection that they’re (d-linemen) doing the dirty work,” Henrich said. “They might not always get the stats and the tackles, but they’re really the true piece of it. It always starts up front.”
Daniels, or Boogie as his teammates like to call him, understands his role and has fun with it.
“He’s (Daniels) such a great player and is so great at embracing his role,” Henrich said. “He obviously makes a lot of plays, too, but when he’s not making plays, he’s eating double teams and he never gets moved off the ball.”
Stille leads the d-line in tackles with 16 while Daniels has 15, Robinson 14 and Thomas 12. Stille is the d-line leader in tackles for loss with 2.5 while both Daniels and Robinson have two and Thomas 1.5. Chris Kolarevic, the transfer linebacker from Northern Iowa, says that unit is playing at a high level.
“Those guys are studs,” Kolarevic said. “It makes it easier when they’re in their gap that they need to be in, it actually makes it easier for us to read it and easier for us to know where we need to be to fit.”
The d-line and linebackers will be busy again on Saturday as Northwestern comes to town. The Wildcats (2-2, 0-1 in Big Ten) are having a down year, but are coming off a 35-6 win over a winless Ohio team where they rushed for 373 yards and four touchdowns.
Northwestern’s top back, sophomore Evan Hull, a 5-11, 220-pounder, has rushed for 478 yards and is averaging 7.6 yards per carry.