Throughout Nebraska's loss to Michigan State Saturday, I kept thinking what the two teams would be if they were companies, since both teams have close to equal talent. Michigan State is like a chain of Big Lots stores: not flashy, but they clear a lot of merchandise, stay within their budget, and stock extra winter coats when the Farmer's Almanac predicts a bitter winter. Nebraska is like an advertising agency: all over the place, succeeds brilliantly when you think they'll fail, and when they do fail, they fall flat on their face. I wonder how many Husker fans want to be more like Big Lots than an advertising agency.
It's pretty disappointing that the Huskers wasted one of the rowdiest pre-kick atmospheres I've seen in Memorial Stadium in a long time. The most telling stat: Michigan State had to go 45 yards to score 24 points off of four of Nebraska's five turnovers. They did exactly what any team should do when they play Nebraska: make the pay dearly for their mistakes. But even with all of those mistakes, Nebraska still had a chance late in the game, and if Stanley Jean-Baptiste holds onto the football on his overturned interception, it could have been a different story.
Nebraska's special teams are truly terrible. Forget a new coordinator or two-Bo Pelini has to hire a full-time special teams coach, or reassign one of his assistants to work primarily on special teams, without minimal duties to another position. Nebraska had just two drives that started beyond their own thirty yard line. Jordan Westerkamp has a better chance of hanging onto that punt inside Nebraska's 10 if he doesn't have three guys in his face. Overall, punt and kickoff coverage isn't there. This isn't the Big 12, where everyone scores in huge bunches and brushes off special teams. In the Big 10, everyone expects to be in low scoring games and special teams play a bigger role in low-scoring games.
When Michigan State lined up for that field goal in the fourth quarter, I noted Nebraska did seem to be playing the middle lightly, perhaps because they expected any fake to go outside. I don't know if you can really fault Nebraska for missing that fake (I had never seen it before), but it does pile on the special teams woes.
The biggest waste in the game was the defense's pre-fourth quarter performance. At the end of three quarters, Michigan State had a modest 221 yards and a 3.6 yards per play average, some of which because of the short fields they received off Nebraska's turnovers. The Blackshirts, massively improved since the start of the season, did their best to keep Nebraska in the game and limit what Michigan State did.
For the second week in a row, Nebraska, a no-huddle, quick-tempo offense waddled into the two minute drill. When Ron Kellogg III wasn't aware that he was going into the game to run the two-minute drill last week at Michigan, it was sloppy even by Nebraska's standards for sloppy. (Call a timeout, Pelini. You had them.) When Nebraska looked like they wanted to run out the clock right before half-time, it made no sense. It's understandable not to want to make a mistake inside your own fifteen yard line, but it's not like Michigan State funs-and-guns it all over the field. Nebraska wasn't going to get the second half kickoff, so they should have acted with more urgency. If Michigan State was willing to use its sole timeout to get the ball back, Nebraska should have gone right back at them.
Sometimes in football, it's just worth it to be aggressive, and Nebraska has to win by striking quick.
There really isn't one part of Nebraska's team right now, other than special teams, that is terrible. The defense can get enough stops, and even with the losses on the offensive line, Tommy Armstrong and company still averaged 6.1 yards per play against an elite defense. Tim Beck finally broke out some of his change-up routes downfield (namely, both touchdown passes), but the offense is still too dependent on the big heave to the sidelines.
Somehow, Ameer Abdullah didn't get more than two carries in the fourth quarter. Normally, I'm a proponent of limiting Abdullah's carries, but he probably could have gotten the Huskers into a couple of third-and-managables while the game was still in question. Of course, if Abdullah was out gas, it might be because of too many touches late in non-competitive games.
There is not a reason to be mad about this loss. It is reasonable to be mad with how easily certain parts of it came to the opponent. Michigan State is the second best team in the Big 10, and probably would be ranked in the top 10 if the Big 10's recent non-conference and bowl record is as bad as it is. MSU, Wisconsin, and Minnesota are all better than Nebraska, mainly because of their offensive lines. Nebraska is good enough to beat anyone else in the Big 10, so as long as they don't spend so much time stepping on their own toes. (Side note: after watching Minnesota against Penn State, I'd say their offensive line is the best non-Ohio State unit in the Big 10.)
Michigan State kicked on the door and broke through. The Spartans had the schedule break this time around, playing off a bye. After the Huskers fought their way back a year ago in East Lansing, MSU was not to be denied by the Husker getting chance after chance. That's what the faked field goal was for.
So Nebraska finally pays for some of its black magic. The bad part now is, they go on the road and play another past victim of that magic. Not to be a complete kill-joy, but the FBS teams that have played Michigan State are winless in their following game.
Derek Johnson is a Seward, Nebraska native who works for his family's organic farm seed company, Blue River Hybrids, and is a freelance writer and commission photographer. He has been a contributor to Husker Max since 2013, and is a former contributor to the website Husker Locker. Visit his blog, derekjohnsonmuses.com, and follow him on Twitter @derekjohnson05.