Nebraska entered Saturday’s game averaging close to seven yards per rushing attempt – it also entered knowing it had found success few had against the Spartans’ run defense.
The Spartans’ response? Not to change their approach.
“We did nothing differently,” linebacker Taiwan Jones said. “We just took it personal.”
”It” was a comment made by Nebraska coach Bo Pelini after the Spartans’ 41-28 win in Lincoln a year ago.
After the Huskers ran for 182 yards, Pelini said: "We've run the football on them for three years. They're a quality football team, but we've run the football on them before, and we'll run it on them again.”
The Huskers averaged 228.3 yards rushing against Michigan State from 2011-13, but Saturday proved to be a different story. With Pelini’s comments in mind throughout a week of preparation, the Spartans held the Huskers to just 47 rushing yards on 37 attempts – just 1.3 yards per attempt – more than 300 yards below their season average of 354.8 yards per game.
”When a coach says that they have never had a problem running on us before,” Jones said, “we take that as an insult and continue to come out and practice hard so we can back up and have them not be able to run like they wanted to. …
”We took into account that nobody is going to come into our house and say they’re gonna run all over our defense, even though we are a brand-new defense.”
Jones said despite the fact Pelini’s comments were made a year ago, they came to the attention of Michigan State players this week. It just added fuel to the fire, as the Spartans talked about the comments through the week and went out to respond on the field.
“There was a lot of talk, especially during this week,” freshman Montae Nicholson said. “It’s all they kept saying, ‘What are we going to do and how are we going to stop the run?’
”We took an approach of how are we going to stop the run and if we stop the run, the game will be over.”
The focus was clear from the opening kick, as the Spartans held the Huskers to 13 yards on 21 attempts in the first half, limiting running back Ameer Abdullah to 21 yards on 13 carries.
“I just think our mentality was going in, this game was had to gets hats to the ball, we have to swarm tackle and we have to play fast and physical,” linebacker Riley Bullough said. “They did that last year, but they broke a few more big plays.”
This time, Nebraska could not get any big plays out of the ground game as Abdullah had a long run of nine yards among his 45 on 24 attempts – his lowest yards per carry (1.9) since the end of his freshman year in 2011.
Jones said the key to containing Abdullah was playing team defense and being gap-sound, something defensive end Marcus Rush said was proven by the results.
“(It shows) that all 11 people on the field did their job,” he said. “We came out and did that for sure.”
But in holding Nebraska to its lowest rushing total since USC allowed just 31 yards to the Huskers in 2007, it was a matter of pride for the Spartans.
”Nebraska definitely came out and challenged us,” Rush said. “Ameer Abdullah, coach Bo Pelini, they challenged us that we couldn't stop the run.
”We came out and we did that. So I am proud of our defense.”
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