It will be an elemental struggle on Saturday in Lincoln. Maybe a struggle against the elements, too, but we’re not talking about those elements today. We’re talking about football elements.
If you were to create a periodic table for football you could probably start with the two teams’ one biggest strength here near the end of the 2018 season: stopping the run (Michigan State) and running the ball (Nebraska). It’s the classic setup and might feel out of place as this game continues to evolve, but I’m not so sure it is. I think you could argue that almost every other independent football event flows to some degree from those two things.
Stopping the run shares chemical properties with third-down defense, which shares properties with sack rate and turnovers and so on. Running the ball shares chemical properties with passing yards per attempt (hey, option teams), which shares properties with points scored and giveaways and so on. At some point, near the middle of the table you’d get to the gray area, the parts showing how stopping the run helps the offense and vice versa.
But in this one you can probably stick to the edges, stick to the struggle. Michigan State gives up 2.55 yards per rush and has given up four runs of 20-plus yards (5th nationally). Nebraska averages 5.65 yards per rush and has 30 runs of 20-plus yards (3rd nationally).
“There's been a couple of weeks [when] I watch big-play reels of runs over 12 yards and some teams we've played have [allowed] about 50 runs of over 12 yards on the year,” Scott Frost said this week. “Michigan State has 10 in 10 games. It's going to be a challenge for us. We've run it well, but this is going to be one of our biggest tests.”
One team will win that battle on Saturday. There won’t be any gray area here.
At least that’s what has happened in this game since the Huskers joined the Big Ten in 2011.
2011: The first meeting pitted 13th-ranked Nebraska against ninth-ranked Michigan State. The Spartans came in giving up 2.8 yards per carry and held Nebraska to 3.28. That was a win for Michigan State in the elemental struggle, but a 24-3 loss on the scoreboard.
2012: No. 21 Nebraska, with the closest analog to the current offense, rushed for 7.83 yards per carry against a defense that gave up 3.28 on the season. Win for Nebraska in the struggle and on the field, 28-24, in East Lansing.
2013: The Huskers rush for 5.69 yards per carry but can’t overcome five turnovers as No. 14 Michigan State, which gave up 2.85 yards per rush on the season, loses the struggle but wins the game 41-28.
2014: No. 10 Michigan State holds off a late rally from No. 19 Nebraska and dominates the struggle. The Spartans’ defense, which allowed 3.17 yards per carry on the year, held Nebraska to 1.27.
2015: The biggest win of Mike Riley’s first season as Nebraska knocks off No. 6 Michigan State. Brandon Reilly’s catch is the moment everyone remembers, but the Huskers fairly average run game also won the struggle against an almost-typically stout (24th nationally) Spartan run defense.
There’s a lot happening in that five-game sample, so let’s look at a couple key takeaways.
1. Stopping the run really is Michigan State’s defining characteristic. Since 2011, the Spartans have ranked in the top 15 in rush yards per play allowed in six of the past eight seasons. The two outliers: 24th in 2015 and 50th in 2016. The Spartans enter this game ranked second.
2. Despite that history of dominance against the run, Nebraska has run it as well against Michigan State as any team not named Ohio State. The Spartans have played 103 games since the start of the 2011 season and given up more than 4 yards per carry in a game just 28 times. Of the top 17 rushing performances against Michigan State over that stretch, Nebraska has been responsible for three of them.
Top 20 Rushing Games Against MSU Since 2011
Michigan State win
3. That’s great, but what’s it have to do with this team and this game? Not much. Different players, different coaches, different circumstances. But it is still interesting to look at how the Huskers ran on Michigan State defenses when others mostly couldn’t. In the 2015 game Imani Cross was uncommonly explosive, rushing 18 times for 98 yards. Ameer Abdullah (22 carries, 123 yards) did the more conventional damage in 2013. It’s the 2012 game that’s most interesting, however. In that one Abdullah rushed 22 times for 110 yards, but Taylor Martinez went wild, running 17 times for 205 yards.
The latter example is perhaps the most relevant this week. The Huskers have a running back playing at an all-conference level. They have a true quarterback run threat, and that’s something the Spartans haven’t seen a ton of this year. Against the most dangerous rushing quarterback Michigan State faced this season, Penn State’s Trace McSorley, the Spartans gave up 205 rushing yards and 6.41 per carry to the Nittany Lions with the added element of QB run. And still won.
Adrian Martinez’s ability to run the ball is, I think, the key to Nebraska finding success on the ground against Michigan State. Frost said the secret to the Spartans’ strength against the run is that “they know their schemes really well so they know where they're supposed to be and where they're supposed to fit.” A running quarterback changes that dynamic. Michigan State will have prepared for it, of course, but it’s still something they’ve seen relatively little of, at least at an Adrian Martinez level, this season.
4. Is winning the struggle enough to win the game? Not always. In the 20 games when Michigan State has given up at least 4.5 yards per carry on the ground since 2011 the Spartans are still 10-10. But if you’re a team facing Michigan State, that’s a whole lot better than the .759 winning percentage the Spartans have posted in the 73 percent of games when they don’t allow a team to hit that 4.5 mark.
Having some success on the ground can make it more of a coin flip against Michigan State, but Vegas, and the betting public, already view this game as close to a coin flip. That’s good news for Nebraska because I think with added element Martinez brings to the table the Huskers will win the struggle for the fourth time in six Big Ten meetings with Michigan State.
And that will be enough to win the game.