LINCOLN — Carl Pelini chewed it over during the week, handing out blackshirts to Nebraska’s first-team defense before the Michigan State game. Maybe just to show his guys, in the midst of pregame hype for an opponent, that he still believed they were the better bunch.
But NU’s defensive coordinator held off. He wanted to see the Huskers play “with an effort we hadn’t played with before” against the team with the Big Ten’s best statistical defense, linebacker Will Compton said. Pelini said so in his final meeting with the team before kickoff. Remind them who we are — and how we play defense.
He got his answer in Nebraska’s 24-3 dismantling of the No. 9 Spartans.
Five punts. Four sacks. Two fourth-down stops. One tone-setting interception. One rattled quarterback in Kirk Cousins. One shut-down MSU wide receiver in B.J. Cunningham — zero catches — who was swallowed whole by cornerback Alfonzo Dennard.
Just one Michigan State play longer than 20 yards, and 187 measly yards overall, against a Husker defense that was diving, tackling, sacking, scraping, crawling, groping, pulling, pounding — and believing.
“We found ourselves,” defensive end Eric Martin said.
“Our guys were locked in,” head coach Bo Pelini said.
“That’s the most fun I’ve ever had in a football game,” end Cameron Meredith said.
Dancing, stomping and chest-bumping when the Spartans surrendered after a desperation hook-and-lateral. Leaping when junior safety Daimion Stafford jumped to high-five a fan screaming “You rock!” in the bleachers.
And celebrating when Carl Pelini pulled out the trademark black practice jersey in NU’s roaring locker room after the game.
“It was awesome,” Compton said. “Well-deserved.”
The Blackshirts are back for a Big Ten stretch run in which the Huskers — 7-1 overall, 3-1 in the league — control their divisional destiny.
“We’re pretty damn proud of our defense around here,” Carl Pelini said. “Everybody you listened to said, ‘Well, they’re a better defense, they’re a better defense.’ So I challenged our guys: Go out and show them we’re a better defense. Who knows, in the end, who’s better and who’s not? But today — we played better.”
Nebraska’s defense started fast with Lance Thorell’s interception on MSU’s opening drive. The senior from Loomis, Neb., stepped in front of a Cousins pass to Cunningham running a shallow cross, grabbed the ball and returned it 26 yards.
“Huge play,” Bo Pelini said.
The No. 13 Huskers converted the pick into seven points when running back Rex Burkhead scored from 1 yard out. Aside from NU wingback Tim Marlowe’s 39-yard run in the first quarter, the defenses traded haymakers for the rest of the first half.
Compton swept around the Spartans’ line for two dramatic, shoestring tackles on sweep plays. MSU defensive end William Gholston engulfed Nebraska quarterback Taylor Martinez for a sack. The Huskers led 10-3 at the break.
“We figured it was going to be a 15-round bout,” offensive coordinator Tim Beck said. “It wasn’t going to be a one swing, hit them and knock them out.”
But NU’s offense finally joined the party in the second half with two long, third-quarter touchdown drives — 14 plays and 12 plays — as a crowd of 85,641 at Memorial Stadium was treated to a Big Ten breakfast beatdown.
Martinez, who threw for zero yards in the first half, completed six of seven passes on those drives, but the star was Burkhead, who carried the ball 14 times in the third quarter, missed two plays with cramps, yet scored two touchdowns. One of them — a 27-yard play-action throwback to help give NU a 24-3 lead — came just after he returned to the game.
“He’s a warrior,” Bo Pelini said.
As the game progressed, Beck said, Michigan State’s defense — which held NU to 270 yards — relented just a little.
“Somewhere in those later rounds — 8, 9, 10, 11 — I think you saw it,” Beck said. “We knocked them out when the game was over, but you felt the change in momentum. We were wearing them down. We were doing the things we needed to do.”
Cousins, who’d played well in wins over Michigan and Wisconsin, had no good answer.
While the Spartans (6-2, 3-1) had some success with the running game — backs Le’Veon Bell and Edwin Baker combined for 96 yards on 22 carries — they’d veer away from the ground and ask their fifth-year quarterback to carry them. But he completed just 11 of 27 passes for 86 yards.
“There were plays where there was nothing there, no matter how long the protection lasted,” said Cousins, who admitted he forced bad throws and should have scrambled more.
Martin said NU’s pass-rush scheme — where four linemen moved around before the snap, then twisted, looped and sprinted off the edge — rattled Cousins.
“He was really confused,” Martin said. “You could see.”
The result was a throwback to 2009 or 2010, when Husker defenses attacked and snacked on any NFL quarterback prospect who wandered near their web. This from a middling unit that had been giving up 356 yards and 25 points per game.
What accounted for the turnaround? Bo and Carl Pelini, as usual, pointed to the process. So committed and fastidious is Bo to this notion that, near game’s end he grabbed safety Austin Cassidy and said: “That’s what happens when you prepare the way you should every week.”
It’s been such a complex season for NU’s defense. But the solution — at least for Michigan State, Cassidy said — was simple.
“We said the defensive line was going to get after the quarterback, linebackers are going to stop the run and the DBs are going to take care of the wide receivers,” Cassidy said. “I don’t get paid to coach — but I think we did a pretty good job of that today.”
|Yards per carry||3.4||3.3|
Nebraska is 8-2 all-time against Michigan State.
|Fresno State||Sept. 10|
|Ohio State||Oct. 8|
|Michigan State||Oct. 29|
|Penn State||Nov. 12|
|South Carolina||Jan. 2|
Nebraska has played 19 games on Oct. 29. See them all »
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