Michigan State Preview 2021

This is the game. Forget losing to Illinois. Forget playing the #3 team in the country close. If we are going to get where we want to be, this is the game that matters. If you remember my season preview, I had Illinois as a win, but Oklahoma and Sparty as a loss in back to back weeks. With what happened in week 1, I think this is a must win game for Nebraska. Feel free to roast me for this, but I think Michigan State is a better coached team than Oklahoma, and quite frankly may be better overall right now than the Sooners, they will be a really tough game for us.

Luckily, I think we match up better with Sparty than the Sooners. While Oklahoma did not impress me at all in their game against Tulane or us, MIchigan State has. With that said, even though we were trying to be physical with Oklahoma, the matchup just wasn’t quite there for us. They still had the better players and could overcome their shortfalls with superior football players. That is not the case in East Lansing.

Mel Tucker has shown he is good at rebuilding programs. He landed the Michigan State job after just one year in Colorado. And if you remember how I would really mock the people saying that Frost inherited bad culture by responding with “then quit playing those guys”, Tucker did it the way I would have. Get rid of what you don’t want, quit making it an excuse, and he has his team 3-0 for 2021 and ranked 20th in the nation. All the while Nebraska fans on message boards are claiming that our Oklahoma loss was actually a good thing, or our OL struggles are a good thing. Mel Tucker brought in 41 new players to his program this year, and 20 of them were transfers. If the culture or players aren’t who you want, the transfer portal makes things so easy now.

But now is the time for Nebraska to get some consistency. Why does it always feel we take a step forward then two steps back. Is this Oklahoma game going to springboard us like the one possession loss to Ohio State in 2018? Or is the Oklahoma loss just going to be the game where we look at what we could have been, but couldn’t do it on a regular basis?

If Michigan State has watched our offense at all, they know that there’s two certainties right now. First, our OL is confused, young, and still trying to find their groove. Nebraska runningbacks are averaging under 4 yards per carry, so we can’t run the ball. Secondly, they also know that our best run play is a called pass where Adrian Martinez scrambles for yards. If they make us run with our RBs, they will win this game. Because Martinez scrambling and our passing game is what they will try and shut down.


So here is what Sparty will try to do to confuse our OL. First, they will try to line a bunch of guys on the line of scrimmage to make our OL call out the wrong blocking scheme:

But, if any of you are members over at Rivals, they post the PFF grades for players, and a couple of our OL scored 0.0 for pass protection grades against Oklahoma. So they may try and do some other twisting/stunts/blitzes for a couple reasons. First, they will twist and turn to try and get us to mess up “passing off the defender” like what happened in Norman. Watch 75 just ride his man down to the center without passing him off to get the looping blitzer:

Michigan State has those twists/blitzes in their arsenal:

But Michigan State just got done playing Miami, a team with a QB very similar to Nebraska. King is ok at passing like Martinez, but where he hurts you is with his legs. As I stated earlier, Sparty will more than likely take a page from Illinois and Fordhams defensive scheme and have the RBs beat them, just not Martinez. How do you do that? Here’s one where Sparty hides a corner blitz (tough to see up top with captions) and they get pressure to where King can barely escape:

But I also think we will see a lot of the delayed blitz action from Michigan State. And that’s where I think they’ll make their hay. They will have their front 4 try to create pressure by any means necessary, and then like in this video, the LB and Safety will delay coming and see where Martinez is escaping to or find a hole to get to him. Last week, Oklahoma put a spy on Martinez like you see here:

I’m not sure Sparty has someone that can spy like Oklahoma did, so they will run delayed blitzes like you see here:

Now, I understand Miami will throw a quick screen and it doesn’t matter here. But again, Michigan State is going to try and stop Martinez from running. And these delayed blitzes that Sparty ran a ton of basically makes people come at Martinez in two waves which would be extremely effective at stopping Martinez scrambles. It will be interesting if they use a spy, delayed blitzes, or twists/stunts on passing downs. My money is on some delayed blitzes like shown above.

But what will they do offensively?

Sparty has arguably the best RB in the country in transfer Ken Walker III. He is leading the country in rushing with 493 yards. But Nebraska is extremely good against the run, and this is what I was talking about with being a good matchup for us. Here is a glimpse of what you will see with Sparty. They have 6 blockers and Miami has 7 guys in the box, they don’t care and still run it as their RB makes people miss and goes for a big gain:

We need to sellout to stop that guy. So it’s going to come down to Michigan State’s QB. While he certainly does not have the athleticism Martinez does, he has some qualities that make me a bit jealous. On this play here, you see he recognizes there’s a blitz coming and he has to get the ball out quick. He’s doing playaction and has his back to the blitz, but still is smart enough to know what’s coming and the timing he needs:

But he’s also sneaky fast. Meaning he can get outside the pocket and run for the first if he needs:

I think our defense should be able to shut down what Michigan State wants to do on the ground, and that bodes well for us. How we handle their QB with our rush and secondary is what will win the game. I like our secondary against Sparty, we will see on our pass rush. I’m less confident there.

Summary/Keys for the game

As stated, I think Sparty might actually be a bit better of an overall team than Oklahoma, but we match up way better with them. I am really scared Mel Tucker is a very good coach. Remember, he was the first year coach in Boulder that was down 17-0 at half, then outscored us 31-14 in the second half taking us to overtime where they beat us and had Nebraska fans blaming it on “the altitude you can’t prepare for.”

Will we see an advantage by them again in year 2 of his program (first year was covid year)? So here’s what we look for… 1) Can we shut down the leading rusher in the country, if yes and we force them to throw, we win. 2) How does Sparty stop Adrian Martinez, if they shut him down and force our RBs to beat them, it will be a low scoring contest.

I had us losing to Sparty to begin this season, and I haven’t seen any consistency from us on the field and especially offensively/special teams (you’ve seen me basically refuse to even talk about our ST, what a dumpster fire). What I saw against Oklahoma encouraged the heck out of me, but I need to see it more than once to start believing. We need to win this game, but are we ready? I truly think our defense will be fine, we are much better than Miami on that side of the ball, but it’s up to our offense to produce when Michigan State takes away Martinez on the ground (if they do), and that’s what i’m not sure of. I’m assuming Tucker and his staff will bottle up Martinez and youngsters at WR or the RB room will be forced to make plays which i’m not confident enough in yet. I’m taking Sparty 27-24, but we match up so well with them I expect a win, i’m just going with my preseason prediction at this point.

Go Big Red!

13 thoughts on “Michigan State Preview 2021

  1. Thanks for the preview SSO.

    Everything I’ve read this week about Mel Tucker has impressed the heck out of me. He says and does all the right things.

    I’m not as certain that we matchup with Michigan State better than Oklahoma. In regards to the talent disparity, I agree. But I’m still not sold on our team versus a competent, physical, run-based Big Ten team. Heck, even OU averaged 5.5 ypc against Nebraska — but they really didn’t want to fully commit to the run like Michigan State (and Wisconsin and Iowa and Minnesota, etc. will try to do).

    Rather than rehash, I’ll simply paste what I wrote on the “dark side” a couple days ago:

    It’s the biggest game in Frost’s tenure to the point.

    Beat Michigan State, and there’s a lot of monkeys off Frost’s back.

    There’s still quite a few skeptics that we can build off a good performance into a consistently better team. I think each season you can point to a good performance against equal or better competition, but it was ultimately more of a blip than a long-term trend.

    Frost is the only Nebraska coach in program history to coach at least three seasons without a win over a ranked team. Here’s his next chance.

    My concern is that our style of play matches up better with Oklahoma than most of the Big Ten teams we’ll face. OU has an abundance of great athletes — but they are more finesse than physical. They’d rather air it out than pound the ball. Score with big plays rather than grind out 6-7 minutes off the clock on an 80 year drive. That’s how I see Nebraska as well.

    Michigan State, Wisconsin, Iowa, Minnesota, Northwestern — those are all teams that want to control the line of scrimmage, pound the ball with the run game, control the clock and tempo, and limit mistakes.

    We are defensively statistically better against the pass than the run. This season and last season.

    Passing yards allowed per game: 45th nationally this season, 46th last season.
    Yards per completion allowed: 9th this season, 35th last season,

    Rushing yards allowed per game: 76th this season, 66th last season.
    Yards allowed per rush attempt: 71st this season, 52nd last season.

    We match up better with a team like Purdue that is pass first than a team like Minnesota that is run first. Michigan State’s offense reminds me more of Minnesota than Purdue. That’s a trend I’d like to see change. Prove you can beat a Big Ten team that wants to commit to the run — because those types of wins have been rare in recent years.

    Also — let’s force some turnovers. We haven’t been good at that.

    This year, we are tied for 99th nationally in takeaways per game — 0.7.
    Last year, we were tied for 109th nationally in takeaways per game — 0.9.

    Here’s the challenge: Michigan State rarely turns the ball over. 0.5 times per game, which is tied for 7th nationally.

    There’s a long list of trends we have an opportunity to change in our matchup with Michigan State.

    Oh — and I’ve read this “we tend to play well against Michigan State.” Since joining the Big Ten, that’s only been against Dantonio. It’s the same thing as a team saying they tend to play well against Nebraska but they haven’t played Nebraska since Riley was coach. This is Mel Tucker. Mel Tucker is not Mark Dantonio. Doesn’t mean he’s better or worse — but it’s apples to oranges.

    Oklahoma may very well be a better team than Michigan State — but I tend to think we match up against a team like Oklahoma better than most of the Big Ten schools. So I’d really like to see Nebraska look like a legitimate Big Ten team.

    Beat Michigan State — and no reason why we shouldn’t get our six wins. But lose, 2-3 overall, 0-2 in the conference — that’s what physicians would call “critical condition.” That would force us to need to win more games than we lose over the final 7 games of the season just to finish .500. I really would need to see that to believe it.

    1. It’s almost as if you read my tweet I was going to put out at noon today to promote my site. I’d agree, biggest game Frost has had. Is he going to show we’ve taken steps forward, or is he going to get beat by a coach with less tenure and less talent than him again? You can’t lose to Michigan State, not after losing to illinois and playing Oklahoma close.

      I get what you are saying with matching up with B1G schools worse than Oklahoma. I just think Sparty can’t outpower us yet, they may be able to in a year or two, but not yet. Oklahoma we outphysicalled but we couldn’t outathlete them so their superior football players won that game despite a worse scheme IMO.

  2. Yeah, I don’t think Michigan State can outpower us — but can they out-scheme us? I’d feel more comfortable with our defense going up against a team that wants to pass first than a team that wants to run as much as possible and control the tempo.

    On the other side of the ball, I’m sure Michigan State wants to do something similar to OU. Close the running lanes — even put a spy on Martinez — and force AM to throw. Martinez had an excellent day passing against OU — but realistically, a lot of teams have had great days passing against OU (last season and Tulane this season). For that matter, we aren’t going to see a lot of sunny, dry days ahead with close to no wind. We beat OU with the pass — but I don’t know how well that’s going to continue going forward.

    1. Yep that’s a good question. I think defensively we can overpower their OL. But I don’t have confidence in our OL overpowering their defense so what do we do from that standpoint?

      I just dont’ think Oklahoma had a good schemed defensively or offensively against us. I’ll be curious to see what Sparty leans on.

  3. SSO, great overview, as always. But it makes me wonder what NU can do on offense to counter MSUs anticipated defensive game plan? Does it open up the screen game? the option game? quick release passes to our tight ends?Any thoughts you can share on that?

    1. I think we will see some quick bubble and TE screens. If i’m sparty, i’m making us hit those screens that our fan base hates and making sure that Martinez can’t scramble on them because multiple times against the Sooners that’s how we moved the chains. Do we have the horses to run on them at RB? Can Betts, Manning, and Toure get open?

  4. Worried Neb cant stop a power run team. Hopefully they load the box and sell out on stopping the run. Maybe slant the Dline one way or another and hopefully they guess right. Play action roll out passes to the TE will kill Neb

    AM holds on to the ball way too long. He is not a quick thinker and decision maker. Need to call plays with quick throws and take shots down the field to help with the run game. Play more two TE sets to help with run and pass blocking.

    Biggest worry is the Oline. They look so none-athletic, wifting on blocks, getting there feet crossed. CJ is the only one that looks athletic, I have never seen a lineman pull and get the the second level soo fast. But on his pass blocking he just gets pushed back.

    1. I’ll be curious how our rushing attack looks against a team that has the leading rusher. I actually have some decent confidence in that, but to your point, we haven’t played a team that will commit to it. Oklahoma didn’t even though they had some success. Illinois did and they beat us, and Sparty is better than them.

      I just think our OL and our defense stopping their RB is the biggest issues we have to overcome. Let’s see what we can do.

  5. I think Nebraska matches up really well against MSU.
    I’ve got a good feeling and think Nebraska might just get a double digits win.

  6. Agree we definitely match up better with Sparty than OU and stopping the run is the key to the game. Walker is on pace to hit 2,000 yards this season. That is not going to happen and clearly those first three games were cupcakes with porous defenses. I think we should be able to limit his effectiveness and slow him down. Conversely on offense I like the mismatches we can create in the passing game. Sparty is 107th in the country in pass defense. Toure, Betts, Manning and hopefully Martin should be able to shred them for some chunk plays and easy drives. The only question now is can this team get out of there own way and win a game against a ranked opponent. Definitely a big game. We get a W and the fanbase breathes a collective sigh of relief. Don’t even want to think about the alternative.

    1. Welp… basically exactly how you and I laid it out. We stuff their run but we get outcoached a bit and they just find a way to win while we stopped their best player. Pretty unfortunate.

      1. Damn that one hurt. We did everything right up until we fielded our pop warner level special teams. Unreal. Honestly would like to see Frost fire/hire someone immediately cuz this is ridiculous at this point.

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