Strength vs. strength: Husker offense against Spartan defense

November 14, 2018

Nebraska running back Devine Ozigbo runs downfield for a touchdown against Illinois on Saturday at Memorial Stadium.

Nebraska’s offense last weekend needed just 15 plays to put its first three offensive touchdowns on the board in a 54-35 win over Illinois.

Its next foe, Michigan State, has allowed three offensive touchdowns combined in its past three games.

Needless to say, this weekend’s matchup against the Spartans is going to be a different level of challenge for an offense that’s been flying high for more than a month now.

“This is close to or as good as the best defenses we’ve faced all year,” NU coach Scott Frost said Monday. “I’ve only watched them for one day (so far this week) and I’ve got a ton of respect for what they do.”

The Huskers have risen to No. 13 in the country and No. 2 in the Big Ten in total offense (482.6 yards per game) and No. 15 in yards per play (6.61), are averaging nearly 43 points per game over their past five outings and have scored at least 30 in each of those games.

The Spartans, meanwhile, are No. 21 in the country (No. 3 in the Big Ten) in total defense (327.3 yards per game allowed), No. 18 in yards allowed per play (4.75) and haven’t allowed 30 or more points since a 38-31 win against a Utah State team that’s won nine straight since then.

So yes, this qualifies as a strength vs. strength matchup.

“You’ve got to love the challenge,” senior center Tanner Farmer said. “We’ve been doing good, performing at a high level.”

Particularly in the run game.

In the past seven games, the Huskers are averaging 6.4 yards per carry and have rushed for 200 or more five times. They’ve also scored at least three rushing touchdowns in each of the past five games. For reference, NU had seven such outings in Mike Riley’s three years as the head coach.

The Huskers’ 5.7-yard-per-carry average in Big Ten play is fourth-best and their 18 conference rushing touchdowns stand second only to Illinois’ 19.

“We’ve been pretty balanced on offense and that’s going to be a big challenge this week because we’re playing the No. 1 rushing defense in the country,” Frost said. “If we can get (Devine Ozigbo) going, if we can get (Maurice Washington) and Adrian (Martinez) contributing to that, it leads to a lot of possibilities in the passing game.”

The Spartans are indeed vulnerable in the passing game, in part due to injuries, but they’ve allowed just one passing touchdown combined over the past three games against Purdue, Maryland and Ohio State. Even with those solid numbers, the rushing defense is the star of the show. MSU has held seven of 10 opponents to 63 or fewer rushing yards and is allowing just 2.6 per carry overall. Penn State rushed for 205 and then Michigan managed 183 — on 52 carries, a modest 3.5 average — back-to-back weeks in October, but otherwise, Mark Dantonio’s group has been lights out.

“We have heard this is the best run-stop defense in the nation, so that is fun,” senior left guard Jerald Foster said. “It’s going to be a whole lot of fun to be able to play against a stout group like that. I don’t see us changing up anything in our game. We are still going to work and try to get the run accomplished. You saw what Devine did last week and him being the Big Ten Player of the Week.

“I think we will be alright in the run game as long as that guy is running like he usually does.”

Neither the Huskers nor the Spartans are exactly where they want to be this fall — the Spartans had conference title and even College Football Playoff hopes when the year started — but Saturday will pit two of the better units in the conference and the country against each other.

“Hopefully we can change that No. 1 ranking this week,” Farmer said.

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