EAST LANSING, Mich. — It's good to be mobile — if only to strike a second of fear in the heart of Big Ten defensive coaches.
For it's fear that drove Michigan State coach Mark Dantonio to call a timeout just before Nebraska's game-changing, fourth-and-10 play. And fear that prompted him to rush three men and call a zone defense soft enough for tight end Kyler Reed to flash open between two wandering linebackers.
What did Dantonio fear? Mobility. In the form of Husker quarterback Taylor Martinez.
“We've got to face up the quarterback because he can run it,” Dantonio said of his passive strategy.
Dantonio had already seen Martinez gut MSU's defense for 59- and 71-yard runs. But I'll bet the play that scared him most was Martinez's 35-yard rollout scramble for a touchdown. The one where Martinez hit the jets 10 yards downfield and left three Spartans comically grasping at his feet while he skipped into the end zone.
“They faked the toss ... the quarterback takes off with it, we're collapsing, we've got nobody there, the safety missed the tackle — we had a couple miss the tackle — and he makes the play,” Dantonio said. “He makes three of them like that.”
Sounds like a man recounting a crime committed against his defense.
Mobility. That's why Michigan State plays “face up” on that fourth down. Without Martinez's raw speed — his innate instincts to see a hole just as it opens and accelerate like Tony Stewart going to the low side of the track out of Turn 3 — the Spartans don't even need a fourth-down stop to win. They coast.
A defensive coach himself, Bo Pelini understood this dynamic when he tabbed Martinez as his starter in 2010. Some fans still find that decision controversial. You probably heard them at your football party late Saturday afternoon.
But how has Dantonio's “safe” choice of Andrew Maxwell worked out for Michigan State? Isn't that why, on fourth-and-2 in Nebraska territory, Dantonio punts instead of trying to ice the win? Because he knows there's one offensive option in that situation — running back Le'Veon Bell — and Nebraska's ready for it?
How has James Vandenberg worked out at Iowa? Or Wisconsin without the wheels of Russell Wilson? Or Auburn without Cam Newton?
Contrast that to Ohio State and Braxton Miller. Or Texas A&M and Johnny Manziel.
Michigan coach Brady Hoke wants to reinstall the classic dropback, pro-style offense in Ann Arbor, and I'm guessing a blowout loss to Alabama this year only emboldened him toward the transition. I don't blame him. Michigan can recruit all the pieces necessary to build that offense right. But it could take time. It'll certainly take quarterback development. And then, if the kid can't move — and UM's five-star recruit Shane Morris frankly can't — he'd better be Kirk Cousins smart. And Cousins, for all his accolades, never won a Rose Bowl. Terrelle Pryor, for all his flaws, did.
Mobility means Marcus Mariota's Oregon offense outscores Matt Barkley's USC offense 62-51. Mobility means Mariota can start just one year in high school and transition to the Ducks' spread, no-huddle attack. Mobility means Kansas State's Collin Klein can shot put long throws to open receivers because the defense is busy worrying about his long, maddeningly patient runs. Mobility means Notre Dame can save its undefeated season because Everett Golson, who can't hit the broad side of a golden dome from the pocket, scrambles for a crucial two-point conversion.
Maybe defenses are close to devising a surefire scheme to stop run-better, pass-possible quarterbacks. They figured out the run-and-shoot and the wishbone. But if you don't have Andrew Luck or Alabama's offensive line or wide receivers who run like Willie Gault, mobility gives you a chance. It's delivered four — count 'em — fourth-quarter comeback wins for Nebraska in the last 17 games.
Pelini landed on the right side of this trend. Yes, Nebraska's offense booms and busts. But it creates fear in a defense. And that's a powerful tool. On with the Rewind.
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» Running back Ameer Abdullah: Quietly pushing toward a 1,000-yard season as a sophomore. He's at 826 now. If NU can work Rex Burkhead back into the lineup — remember, I think Burkhead should wait as long as he needs — Abdullah is clearly the Huskers' best option in the return game.
» Offensive coordinator Tim Beck: Martinez's 71-yard touchdown run was terrific play design. Beck sent Abdullah and the offensive line action to the left while Ben Cotton sliced over to kick out end William Gholston as Martinez's lead blocker. Once Kenny Bell cracked back to create Martinez's outside running lane, the Spartans had no defenders left. It's a quarterback variation on Roy Helu's touchdown run to open the 2010 Missouri game.
» Michigan State running back Le'Veon Bell: The junior ran for 188 bruising yards. It's a pleasure to watch that toughness. He should return to Nebraska one more time next year.
» Defensive back Justin Blatchford: Clutch pass breakup in the fourth quarter. MSU tight end Dion Sims, the Spartans' best third-down receiving threat, had a quiet day once Blatchford took over covering him.
» Michigan State defensive back Darqueze Dennard: His two interceptions are eclipsed by a personal foul that negated his interception return for a touchdown and his pass interference penalty that set up Nebraska's final score.
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» Center Justin Jackson: Tough.
» Defensive end Eric Martin: He didn't notch a sack, but Michigan State remained aware of his presence all game. Martin finished with eight tackles.
» Martinez: The quarterback has 666 rushing yards this season. There's no question Big Ten defenses see him as one fast devil of a playmaker.
» Safety P.J. Smith: Led the Huskers with 12 tackles and 1˝ tackles for loss. The Husker with a hot-and-cold career is closing on a strong note.
» Wide receiver Jamal Turner: Time to give the sophomore more of a chance outside the slot role. Send him and Bell on twin go routes and see the safeties spin their heads.
» Pass interference penalties: Those cost NU's defense at least seven points Saturday, and arguably 10. Pelini has to enlist Dantonio and Ohio State's Urban Meyer in a fight to get better clarification from the Big Ten on what is allowable. The league's three most athletic defenses get poor treatment for their coverage strategy.
» Lack of hits on the opposing quarterback: No sacks and a handful of hurries, despite Pelini dialing up a few blitzes. Yes, Maxwell completed just 9 of 27 passes. But Penn State's Matt McGloin is completing eight percent more of his throws than Maxwell this season, and the Nittany Lions' offensive design is better, too.
The Huskers can't wait in the weeds for McGloin to make a mistake; he isn't making many. Just three interceptions.
» Poor screen game: Nebraska's still struggling with bubble, tunnel and traditional screen passes. Martinez always has because of his release point and the lack of depth on his drops, but Beck clearly thought the perimeter screen strategy would work, because he called a few plays during the game. The Spartans were wise to the plan.
Without screens, Martinez's blitz beater options include the deep throw — one of which resulted in an interception — and that quick-out throw to the tight end. Another interception.
» Should Bo have gone for the first fourth-and-long? Trailing 24-21, Pelini said he “went with his gut” in attempting to convert a fourth-and-9 at the MSU 44. Martinez's completion to Quincy Enunwa fell 5 yards short of a first down. Was it the right call?
I'd argue no. Not with Nebraska's three timeouts and a Michigan State offense that would only run the ball. Punt there, pin the Spartans back inside their 20 and get a stop.
Which the Huskers eventually did. After MSU gained 21 yards. So, for argument's sake, let's say Michigan State had started that final drive at its 10 instead of its 40.
Here's where colleague Dirk Chatelain, who thought Bo was right to go for it, offered the counterargument: Michigan State punter Mike Sadler averaged 46.6 yards per punt, and even if he's kicking from, say, his 21-yard line, he's going to push back returner Tim Marlowe to the Nebraska 30 anyway. Since the Huskers actually started their final drive at the 20, was the extra 10 yards, Dirk argued, worth forfeiting a chance at converting a fourth down in Michigan State territory?
My counter to his counter: Michigan State got more emotional momentum out of a stop at midfield than it would have out of a punt. I'd rather see the Spartans try to gain 10 yards in their own end than gain them at midfield.
It's a close call. I lean toward punt, because the odds of hitting a fourth-and-9 — no matter what Nebraska did later in the game — were slim. Dirk says go, and Martinez's later fourth-down conversion proves his argument valid. You know where to email both of us.
» Will there be four undefeated teams at the end of the year? Four? There could be six. In fact, I'd wager Ohio State has the best chance of actually finishing the year without a loss. From there, my order goes: Oregon, Kansas State, Alabama, Notre Dame, Louisville. A four-team playoff wouldn't solve much, would it?
And just think if Alabama hadn't resurrected, Lazarus-style, to beat LSU in the final 90 seconds. The SEC potentially shut out of the national title race with a month left in the season? What would all the southern writers have done?
Kansas State's a terrific story, perhaps the story of the young decade, but the defenses the Wildcats have faced this year are so porous that you wonder how a team like Alabama hits them. The Big 12 in 2012 reminds me of the Big 12 in 2001, when Nebraska, Colorado and Texas defenses were shredded like lettuce in their bowl games, giving up 37, 38 and 43 points, respectively.
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» After Randy Gregory's commit late last week, what's left in recruiting? Nebraska needs at least one junior college defensive tackle — arguably two — two more defensive backs, a running back, a tight end, a wide receiver and two offensive tackles. Maybe another center, too.
The Husker coaches will, again, have to close with two long, hard months of recruiting after the regular season. And the more they win, the more attractive they become to Big Ten region recruits who don't have offers to Michigan or Ohio State. A Rose Bowl berth would earn them a key week of evaluation and exposure in California. To a guy like target Terrell Newby, who is Nebraska's top running back prospect and one of the best all-purpose players in the nation, that could mean a lot.
» Six: Husker runs of 50 yards or longer this season. That's tied for tops in the nation with California, Utah State and Oregon.
» 106th: Nebraska's ranking in turnover margin. Keeping company with Idaho and Auburn. The Huskers are no longer last in fumbles lost, though. Memphis has that honor. NU's just second-to-last. Penn State leads the Big Ten in turnover margin, incidentally.
» 118th: The Nittany Lions' ranking in net punting. That's 32.17 yards. That's hideous. Most of Penn State's special teams are a grease fire.
Penn State is second nationally in fourth-down attempts and fourth nationally in fourth-down conversions. That's partially a function of the Nittany Lions' putrid kicking game. But new coach Bill O'Brien also believes in possessing the ball and betting on his offense to protect a stingy-but-thin defense.
PSU makes up for a lack of talent on offense with a wealth of targets and O'Brien's terrific use of tight ends. His top three tight ends have combined for 60 catches, 760 yards and eight touchdowns. They're all big, athletic guys, and Nebraska will not match up easily with them.
I won't pause much to address the ongoing child sexual abuse scandal that hovers over the football program and the university, except to write that it's been one year since news of Jerry Sandusky's crimes fully broke, coach Joe Paterno was fired and NU headed to State College to play a game in the midst of great sorrow and anger. So get ready for in-depth reviews of that week. Get ready to have opinions and emotions where you might not expect them. And get ready for Penn State to play hard in Lincoln.
Periods of optimism mixed with lingering doubts.
Contact the writer:
402-202-9766, firstname.lastname@example.org; twitter.com/swmckewonOWH
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>> Video: See NU-MSU postgame analysis video with Jon Nyatawa: