The season has been an interesting one for the Huskers. For so many reasons, most of which we won't cover in a bowl-game preview, but the good thing is that this bowl isn't one with a dot.com behind it's name. It's the Alamo Bowl, Nebraska vs. Michigan State and the Huskers look to cap off a great year by notching their 10th win of the season.
If you were to look at Michigan State's starting quarterback, as a Husker fan, you have to be drooling. While the Huskers have been bitten several times by mobile quarterbacks this year, they haven't fallen once to a prototypical passer, the kind of guy that likes to sit back in the pocket and pick you apart if he can.
Enter, Jeff Smoker.
The rebound Smoker has made in his collegiate career is worthy enough of it's own story, one that's been told several times this year, but while he's certain to garner plenty of props in what he's done in the area of passing the ball to the tune of 60%+ on the season for completion percentage, his running prowess is what hurts him in this game and favors the defense he'll be facing.
Enter, The "Blackshirts".
While the NU defense has been befuddled most of the year by mobile signal-callers, it's guys like Smoker that over the stretch of a game Nebraska has hit, picked and frustrated almost the entire year. Smoker's negative 90 yards rushing on the year is the key for the Husker D as the pressure they get on Smoke will determine the outcome of this game.
Seriously, that's it.
If you are thinking that the Nebraska offense is going to come out of it's shell, especially against a defense that's pretty decent against the run, think again. It hasn't happened against hardly any quality team this year, so don't expect it to happen now.
As for NU's running game, Michigan State will load up as you would expect and dare Lord to beat them.
He can't and won't, at least not in the air.
The story for the Huskers all year is making very few mistakes on offense and a suffocating defense equals an NU victory. In a season where the offense is in the midst of a frustrating attempt at transition towards a little more balance, the blackshirts have had to shoulder the load, something they have done quite well.
Leading the country in turnover margin, having Josh Bullocks who leads the country in total interceptions, plus the team itself leads the country as well, where Michigan State is at it's best in passing, Nebraska is amongst the best in keeping teams from doing just that.
What MSU's passing attack is, is persistent. Jeff Smoker has shown the ability to throw the ball 50 times in a contest if needed. He'll throw some interceptions here and there, but still manages an almost 2 to 1 TD to interception ratio. Plus, against teams with solid defenses like Ohio State, Smoker still managed well over 300 yards in the air. Out of all the pure-passers NU has faced, Smoker is likely to be the most dangerous.
The good news for the usually dependable defense of Nebraska is that when Smoker drops back, he's vulnerable, Michigan State giving up over 2 sacks a game. Don't count on those sacks resulting in turnovers though, the Spartans actually leading the country in fewest fumbles lost on the year. Nebraska's defense will mostly have to key on consistent pressure and hope that it's enough to force Smoker into making some mistakes.
You may wonder with so much emphasis on Smoker and stopping him, will Nebraska simply be giving the Spartan rushing attack more opportunities to burn the Huskers on the ground. Though you don't want to underestimate any team's ability to do any one thing, Nebraska will have somewhat of a luxury in knowing that they are facing a rushing attack that is borderline anemic.
MSU's leading rusher, Jaren Hayes has just 139 attempts on the year. In comparison, Nebraska has 3 players in triple digits, Cory Ross just shy of the century mark in carries by 7. Jammal Lord leads with 205 attempts, Josh Davis in second with 138 and David Horne rounds out the top three with 105. For the year, MSU ran the ball 367 times and Nebraska, 662.
So, Smoker is going to throw it and probably a lot, but who's getting the ball? In the Zone coverage for Nebraska, there won't be a lot of individual assignments, but that's good, because when it comes to Michigan State, they spread the receiving wealth around..........a lot.
Michigan State has 9 players with double-digits in receptions, 4 with 30 or more. To contrast that with Nebraska, the Huskers have 4 guys with double-digit amounts catching the ball and nobody that even tops 22 total receptions on the year.
Agim Shabaj leads the team in total touchdowns, receptions and average per game, but again, this is wide receiver by committee and they have an awfully big committee. Nebraska simply can't key on one, two or even three different guys on this Spartan squad, because they have a myriad of players that could hurt NU at any time during the game.
A lot of what Michigan State succeeds at is often predicated on how fast they get out of the gate. While NU is a notoriously bad team playing from behind, when MSU is on, they are getting on top and quickly. Their first-half scoring advantage on the year is 200-143. If MSU can be that kind of team, it's going to be a long and short day for Nebraska.
The good in this area for the Huskers is that they have been stingy in scoring all year. Their 3rd quarter prowess is nationally renowned, but giving up not even 100 points total on the year in the first half of games, while managing to score 150, the Huskers seem to match up well.
So, ok, now that we have gone over the strengths, it's inevitable that we talk about an area that most Husker fans would just as soon close their eyes to, but will need to bring a win out of San Antonio.
The Nebraska offense.
Many adjectives have been flung about concerning the Husker offense this season. Most of it not all that great, especially when the comparisons to teams of Nebraska that were decidedly more prolific are brought into the conversation. What is good about this Nebraska offense is what it can do when they are determined not to kill themselves in games.
NU leads the country in turnover margin, but when it comes to how many times they turn the ball over themselves, Nebraska is 89th in the country in fumbles lost and take into account, the higher the number here, the worse you are. And in having balls picked off, the 10 interceptions may not appear that bad when compared to everyone else (31st in the country), but when you take into account how many times NU throws the ball, you come up with an interception percentage that is 4th highest in the division.
One bright spot on offense for Nebraska as of late has been the running of late-season starter, Cory Ross. In the 3 games he's started, he's managed over 100 yards in two of them, 87 in the other, that one against Kansas State.
Michigan State does have a counterattack for Ross and the red rushing attack of Nebraska. They rank 24th in the country against the ground game, allowing just 116 yards per contest. Nebraska's own stout defense can't say that, the blackshirts ranked 31st overall.
They do this with a defensive line that is in a word, big. Almost 300 a man on the interior of the defensive line, the Spartan D remains physically stout at the ends, starting rush end, Greg Taplin approaching 260 and Clifford Dukes (RE referred to here as a "STUD") is over 260 lbs. The front four is an experienced bunch, all four starters from last season. At linebacker, size is the ticket again as not one of their starting linebackers are under 230, 2 of them actually being 250 or just shy of that mark.
Yeah, that's big and with the results they have had this year in stopping plays at the line of scrimmage, you can see where Nebraska should have some serious issues in putting together long sustained drives, something essential for Nebraska to do.
Now, with any analysis, you must go over most if not all aspects, but when it comes to Nebraska's passing game, most wonder why even talk about it at all. While Jammal Lord started off the year well, his efficiency has dropped considerably, Lord well over 50 percent through the first half of the year, the starting QB now under 50 percent of the entire season. Keys for Nebraska though will be the usual suspects, TE, Matt Herian being able to get open, receivers being able to take advantage of opportunities and Lord has to make the most of those as well, but for him, the bottom line is, don't hurt the team. If Lord doesn't turn the ball over, that alone gives the NU offense a chance to be at least effective if not prolific for this game.
In special teams, NU has the advantage, Nebraska amongst the nation's best in punting and kickoff returns. Field goal kicking could become an issue, NU though with much faith in true freshman, David Dyches who is a respectable (for a true frosh) 13-19 on the year, long of 41 and of those 6 misses, half of them were blocked.
Overall, the basic premise for each is simple:
For Nebraska - Cory Ross must have 20+ carries on the game. Nebraska has to establish something on the ground early or it's a long day for the team. Nebraska's offense has hung their own defense out to dry on several occasions late in the season with unsustained drives, the defense simply wearing down. Jammal Lord has to be mistake-free and Nebraska has to get out of the gate early with some points. Scoring in the first quarter is almost a must for the Big Red.
On defense, considering the type of QB they are facing, NU simply has to be the NU they have been all year when facing signal-callers that aren't prolific on the ground. Expect a lot of blitzing and I do mean a lot. Linebackers, safeties and maybe the kitchen sink, NU's going to be bringing the heat all night long on the Spartan QB.
That could mean unique man-to-man coverage opportunities for Michigan State, but if the hands are in the face or Smoker can be forced out of the pocket, Nebraska's D should have a good day.
For Michigan State - Bottom line, protect Jeff Smoker. With the very good possibility of him being blitzed like he might not have seen all year, Smoker will have to make decisions quickly. Not a lot of 5-step drops, utilizing short passes and a generous use of the tight end wouldn't hurt, Smoker will have to be on his game in reading the defense fast and making the decisions ahead of the pressure. He'll get pressure, of that there isn't a doubt. Picking up the blitz with the running backs, fullbacks and tight ends is crucial for Smoker to have the chances to hit what should be some golden opportunities for big plays downfield.
On defense, If MSU can stop NU early, they have a great chance at success. Not allowing NU to get in a rhythm running the football goes without saying. Jammal Lord can't beat them consistently in the passing game and they know that, so 9 in the box should be an all-game occurrence. Maybe even 10 at times.
Cory Ross is an elusive running back with the ability to bounce outside, so while MSU should be stout up the middle, their overall size from the interior line to the backers means they are going to be vulnerable around the corners. Creating seals with the ends before Ross can bounce out is key for them, but most of the game, the linebackers are going to have to play fairly close on the line of scrimmage.
This is really a classic match-up in that it's an example of one team's strength on offense hitting the strength of the other team's defense, MSU's passing attack vs. NU's ability to stop them from doing just that. If you take just the raw stats into account and try to figure in a little for what each has managed to do even in losses, Nebraska gets the nod.
Even in the losses, yes, even against Texas, it was the defense that made the most noise. They are almost unconscious in being able to cause turnovers one way or another at a variety of points in the game. Nebraska's offense hasn't done all that well, but when given a short field from those turnovers caused, they have put points on the board.
I think Smoker gets heat like he's never seen in this contest. I can't see anything but blitz after blitz after blitz by the Nebraska defense. Smoker is a quality QB and player and should have opportunities to take advantage of that. If he can, it's all good for MSU, but if not, Smoker will get, dare I say it, smoked.
It's going to be a physical game with mental mistakes making the difference, but as they have done all year, I think the Nebraska defense takes hold and doesn't let go, but this time, the NU offense doesn't hurt that success in the end.
Michigan State 13
Steve Ryan can be reached at email@example.com or 402-730-5619