Photo Credit: Eric Francis

On The Rewatch: 5 Standout Plays Against Michigan State

September 27, 2021

Coming into Saturday night’s showdown in East Lansing, Michigan, between Nebraska and No. 20 Michigan State, the Spartans’ talented running back, Kenneth Walker III, was one of the bigger storylines to watch.

Walker, a 5-foot-10, 210-pound transfer from Wake Forest, was leading the nation in rushing yards with 493. He averaged 8.65 yards per carry and was becoming a household name in the college football world. How would defensive coordinator Erik Chinander’s defense hold up against such a ground-and-pound attack? Fans were wondering.

Nebraska ultimately lost the game, 23-20 in overtime, but the Blackshirts stopped Walker and the Spartan rush in its tracks. After averaging 263.67 rushing yards in its previous three games, Michigan State was held to just 71 on Saturday night. Walker never got in a rhythm—he finished with 61 yards on 19 carries. Take away his 23-yard scamper in overtime and his average per touch dipped to 2.1.

Nebraska’s front seven wreaked havoc on MSU’s offensive line all night. Walker had little room to operate as linebacker Luke Reimer and Co. held their ground time after time. Reimer led the Huskers with 11 tackles while linebacker Nick Henrich added nine, outside ‘backer Garrett Nelson six and safety Deontai Williams five. Nose tackle Damion Daniels also had a solid game.

“It’s hard to run the ball when you have 11 dudes trying to tackle you,” Nelson said after the game. “We didn’t change anything, we played the defense that we know we can play and played for each other.”

While the stat sheet says Daniels had four tackles, the big man in the middle made plenty of plays that helped the defense gets stops—plays that don’t show up in a traditional box score. Let’s break down five plays in Nebraska’s run defense that stood out in the game.

Daniels, Reimer and Williams collapse Walker

It didn’t take long for Nebraska’s defense to introduce itself to the MSU o-line and Walker. The above play is the first offensive snap of the game. MSU comes out in 11 personnel (one back, one tight end) and attempts an outside zone run to the boundary, or short side of the field.

Because the Spartans are in 11 personnel, the Huskers bring out their nickel package, which includes two down linemen (Daniels and Stille), two outside ‘backers (Nelson and Caleb Tannor, who has his hand in the grass), two middle linebackers (Reimer and Henrich) and five defensive backs (JoJo Domann gets labelled a DB in this instance because he mostly plays in space near the opposing slot receiver). Nebraska likes to use its nickel package against 11 personnel because it replaces a defensive lineman with a quicker linebacker/defensive back.

Daniels blows up the play from the snap. He immediately gets into the backfield by controlling the center, Matt Allen, who can’t reach his block and gets no help from his right guard, Kevin Jarvis. Daniels disrupts Walker’s path. Williams does a great job of setting the edge, taking on the block of tight end Connor Heyward and turning Walker back inside where Reimer is waiting. Reimer flows well to the ball and is too quick for the right tackle AJ Arcuri.

Reimer sprints down Walker

Reimer continued to have an excellent season on Saturday night. One the play above, MSU is again in 11 personnel, so Nebraska counters with its nickel package to keep more speed on the field. The Huskers look to be in man coverage with one free safety over the top (that’d be Marquel Dismuke, who’s out of the screen).

The Spartans go with a speed option to the field, or long side in an effort to take advantage of all that green grass. The MSU right tackle Arcuri leaves outside ‘backer Pheldarius Payne unblocked while he climbs to linebacker depth to block Henrich (Arcuri gets away with a hold).

MSU quarterback Payton Thorne makes the correct read and pitches once Payne decides to take the quarterback. The play looks like it’s going to get the first down on third-and-5, but Reimer lands the blow to stop Walker short. Watch Reimer’s speed on this play—the Spartans’ right guard, Jarvis, and left guard, J.D. Duplain, aren’t quick enough to get to Reimer, who tracks down Walker like a heat-seeking missile.

Daniels creates lane, Reimer flies through

The play above is a good example of Daniels doing the dirty work that won’t show up in a box score. MSU comes out in 11 personnel again, and Nebraska counters with its nickel package.

Daniels and Jarvis go head to head on this inside run and Daniels wins by holding his ground and re-directing Walker’s path. Walker initially looked like he wanted to keep running to the outside, but Daniels beat him there and forced Daniels back inside. As Husker fans have come to expect, Reimer was waiting for him and recorded the tackle.

Daniels and Ty Robinson shed blocks for tackle

The play above is an example of what Nebraska does when two tight ends are on the field. The Spartans come out in 12 personnel, so the Huskers counter with a more traditional 3-4 look, using three down linemen (Stille, Daniels and Robinson), two outside ‘backers (Tannor and Nelson) and two inside ‘backers (Reimer and Henrich). Nebraska likes the 3-4 look when opposing offenses use two tight ends because it brings another lineman into the mix to defend against a likely run formation.

Watch how both Daniels and Robinson easily swim past their blockers to meet Walker in the backfield on third-and-1. This is another play where Daniels may not have gotten credit on the stat sheet, but still impacted the play.

Nelson gets skinny

In the play above, Michigan State comes out in 11 personnel again, so Nebraska counters with its nickel package with two linemen, four linebackers and five defensive backs (we’re counting Domann as a hybrid DB/LB here).

The Spartans attempt an outside zone run, with the o-line all getting movement to the field side at the snap. With Stille straight-arming the left guard Duplain, Nelson somehow manages to get skinny and slid past left tackle Jarrett Horst for the tackle for loss on second-and-5.

It seems that with every game, Nelson is getting better. He’s come a long way from his true freshman year in 2019 where he was running around with his hair on fire, not totally sure what he was doing. But now, in 2021, Husker fans should want to see him out there.

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