Dienhart: Offense wins this one for Spartans

LINCOLN, Neb. — The credentials of the Michigan State defense have been well-chronicled in 2013. We’ve all heard and seen the numbers recited. The unit entered today’s game No. 1 in the nation in total defense (210.2 ypg), No. 1 in rushing defense (43.4 ypg), No. 1 in pass efficiency defense (90.3 rating), No. 1 in first downs defense (12.7 pg) … and on and on it goes.

Yes, the Michigan State defense is really good. But, it was the offense that won this big game at Nebraska.

“That whole offense, (Connor) Connor included, this whole year they have just gotten better and better and better,” said MSU linebacker Max Bullough. “I don’t know if there’s many guys out there or many teams that can take the stuff they took at the beginning of the year and last year, saying they couldn’t do anything. They just keep chugging and keep coming to work and keep going to practice, and it’s shown. They deserve the success they’ve had. Connor deserves the success he’s had. He’s a great kid, a great football player, and he’s worked his tail off. I think that’s something that people are finally starting to notice. They’re starting to get the production.”

The Huskers out gained Michigan State, 392-361. It was the most yards MSU has allowed all season. If not for five Nebraska turnovers, the outcome of this game may have been different. Still, it was the MSU offense that stepped up—along with a key fake field goal to keep a late drive going–and made the key plays down the stretch when the Huskers got to within a touchdown of taking the lead on two occasions (20-14; 27-21) in the second half.

The main man? MSU running back Jeremy Langford. He has been the guy carrying the load as the team has gained momentum down the stretch. And he came up big again today. Langford carried 32 times for a career-high 151 yards and three touchdowns. It was his sixth 100-yard rushing game in a row. During this skein, Langford has rushed for 721 yards and nine touchdowns.

Bruce Thorson-USA TODAY Sports

Bruce Thorson-USA TODAY Sports

Credit must be given to the offensive line. The unit was maligned in 2012 because of injury, as chemistry and continuity were elusive. But the unit has congealed this season, led by left guard Blake Treadwell, left tackle Jack Conklin and center Jack Allen.

This also was a signature victory in 2013 for Michigan State. Without a doubt, Nebraska was the biggest foe it has beaten. And this also is the Spartans’ first win ever vs. the Huskers after losing the previous seven meetings. Last year in East Lansing, MSU was done in by a late touchdown pass. In 2011 in this venue, Nebraska sat on the Spartans. But that seems like ancient history on this day.

Michigan State is now 9-1 overall and 6-0 in the Big Ten. The win over Nebraska clinched at least a share of the Legends Division title and a return to the Big Ten title game for the second time in three seasons is on the horizon. But the Spartans want so much more. It’s time to start dreaming big for a program that hasn’t been to the Rose Bowl since the 1987 season.

“Well the reality is, we have played for a championship in 2008 at the end of the season, 2010, 2011 and now 2013, we will have a chance to play for a championship,” said MSU coach Mark Dantonio. “On the last game of the season, any way you cut it, it is a Legends Championship, any way you cut it. Those are positives, those are big positive steps for a program from when we came here.”

Think about how close this Spartans team is to being unbeaten. The lone blemish was a 17-13 loss at Notre Dame on Sept. 21 that very easily could have been a victory. The Fighting Irish took advantage of a MSU trick play that backfired and four pass interference calls vs. the Spartans.

Since that setback, Michigan State has reeled off six victories in a row to put itself firmly in control in the Legends Division with a two-game lead over Nebraska and Minnesota. The Spartans play at Northwestern next week and finish the season at home vs. Minnesota.

This win by Michigan State, coupled with Ohio State’s 60-35 demolition of Illinois, puts us closer to a Spartans vs. Buckeyes Big Ten championship game. Is there any better scenario? Nope.

It’s difficult to recall that this Michigan State program was coming off a 7-6 season in 2012 that left many scratching their heads. Time and again last year, the Spartans lost close games, dropping five games by four points or less in an excruciating season. In 2010-11, when the program posted back-to-back 11-win seasons, Michigan State went 9-1 in games decided by 10 points or less.

Bruce Thorson-USA TODAY Sports

Bruce Thorson-USA TODAY Sports

This year, there have been no such worries about close games. The narrowest victory for MSU has been a 12-point triumph (26-14) at Iowa. Otherwise, the Spartans haven’t had close calls in victory.

Where does Nebraska go from here? The Cornhuskers were coming off two inspiring victories, pulling out a Hail Mary finish vs. Northwestern and then methodically taking down Michigan in Ann Arbor. It was enough to buoy hopes in Lincoln, positioning the Cornhuskers to seize control of the Legends Division and get positioned to return to the Big Ten championship game with a victory over Michigan State. But now?

“I just left the locker room with the kids and they were disappointed,” said Nebraska coach Bo Pelini, whose team likely would have benefited if injured Taylor Martinez had played. “I told them that I’m proud of them. I’m proud of the way that they fought.

“I liked our plan, I really did. I thought we had a good plan. We didn’t always execute, I think, offensively. I liked the way we were attacking them. There were some things there. There were many things we left out on the field. Overall, our guys fought. We didn’t get it done. Now our challenge is to regroup … .“

The Huskers are 7-3 overall and 4-2 in the Big Ten. The two wins before this may have been a bit of fool’s gold. Nebraska plays at Penn State next week, and the Nittany Lions have lost just once (to UCF) at home. Then, the Huskers finish at home vs. a tough Iowa team. The point: Nebraska could finish on a three-game losing skid. It will be fascinating to see how the Cornhuskers rebound next Saturday in Beaver Stadium. For MSU, the dream season marches on.

“It shows we have a solid foundation but we need to continue to coach, and play and play up and continue to climb the latter,” said Dantonio. “You want to be where we are at, at the end of the season. I think it was a statement for a lot of people, for recruits and for everybody else.”

About Tom Dienhart BTN.com senior writer Tom Dienhart is a veteran sports journalist who covers Big Ten football and men’s basketball for BTN.com and BTN TV. Find him on Twitter and Facebook, read all of his work at btn.com/tomdienhart, and subscribe to his posts via RSS. Also, send questions to his weekly mailbag using the form below and read all of his previous answers in his reader mailbag section.

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Your Opinion?
Show Comments (14 Comments)
bigtengrad on 11/16/2013 @ 9:48pm EDT Said:

Five turnovers. Three unforced. Pretty brief mention of what determined the outcome of this game. OSU will not turn the ball over five times. For this being the greatest defense in the history of mankind, they looked somewhat pedestrian against a decimated Nebraska offense. I suppose its the best the Legends can come up with to play OSU, but I have a suspicion, no make that an absolute certainty, that the Leaders will win the B1G again. Sorry MSU, not impressed.

Bruce F Brown on 11/16/2013 @ 10:34pm EDT Said:

Sorry bigtengrad…Sparty is not interested in whether, or not, you are impressed!

Spartan in Los Angeles on 11/16/2013 @ 11:43pm EDT Said:

Michigan was not impressed before my boys took away their manhood, Kentucky was not impressed a week ago, good things come in threes. My boys will be ready Dec7

Troy on 11/16/2013 @ 11:44pm EDT Said:

Terrible recap of the game I watched.

Douglas on 11/16/2013 @ 11:44pm EDT Said:

Let’s take a look at the facts. MSU had 4 scoring drives that didn’t involve a Nebraska turnover (they came after 3 punts, 1 kickoff). They added another score after a forced fumble. That was enough to win the game right there and it was all MSU’s doing.

MSU gave up 175 yards on the ground, 80 yards coming on just 2 plays. Take those out and the defense kept them under 100 yards on the ground. Nebraska had 210 passing yards. 70 of those yards were during garbage time at the end of the game. Sorry, not impressed with your excuses.

Spartan 4 life on 11/16/2013 @ 11:59pm EDT Said:

you are going to eat those words and bite your tongue buddy remember 2012 only winning by 1 point…the only team to even come close to beating OSU in 2012….its gonna be like that this year except a different outcome on MSU side 21-17 final MSU

hoopsvader on 11/17/2013 @ 4:04am EDT Said:

Not impressed with OSU giving up 35 to Illinois either. The frauds of OSU will be exposed soon.

bob jones on 11/17/2013 @ 5:31am EDT Said:

Five turnovers, three of them deep in their own territory and three in the first half of the first quarter doomed the Huskers. Difference was the QB play, Cook had a great game while Armstrong struggled mightily. The best defense Saturday was wearing red, great effort despite being put in bad position from early on and throughout the game by an offense that was expected to be the BIG’s best this year, but has too often been its own worst enemy with all the turnovers. Gutsy game by NU’ s offensive line missing several starters.

Grant on 11/17/2013 @ 9:03am EDT Said:

Nebraska’s offense outplayed MSU D this whole game, unfortunately with a young QB and team in general they made mistakes and that is what did the game. 3 turnovers deep in your own territory with 2 more around mid field, the fact they didn’t lose worse I think says a lot about the Nebraska D coming along. I think we can still get 9 wins this year and with all the injuries that would be a very good thing. I am really excited for the next few years though with all these guys coming back after all this experience this year.

Faygo on 11/17/2013 @ 11:10am EDT Said:

Sorry, Husker fans, but this game is over – in the rear view mirror, and a loss, no matter how you shape it. It was a 20-point Spartan lead before the meaningless final touchdown. Over and done. You have a good team, but better get your heads together for Penn State, or you will lose again.

Doug on 11/17/2013 @ 11:15am EDT Said:

wow last year the refs hand the game to nebraska vs msu, this year neb turns it over time and time again, you guys sound like michigan fans. bigtengrad is probably urban cryer posting under a different name

Spartan in Los Angeles on 11/17/2013 @ 12:50pm EDT Said:

That’s right Doug big ten grad is starting to worry about which hat Lee Corso puts on Dec7 he is getting nervous

bigtengrad on 11/17/2013 @ 1:03pm EDT Said:

Love it, Doug. Can’t enjoy a win, have to bring up calls from previous years. MSU fans are the best. Especially Douglas, who apparently figures stats by throwing out rushing plays over 30 yards and passing yards in “garbage time”. Whatever makes you guys feel better, man.

JP on 11/18/2013 @ 9:19am EDT Said:

Michigan State is a class program, so I hope they win out moving forward. Wish Nebraska would have won, but can’t say “should” have won. Having said that. Nebraska gift wrapped several turnovers that had little to do with MSU. Dropped punt inside the 10. Dropped option pitch w room to run. O-lineman runs into his QB to fumble inside the 5. Nebraska was -5 in turnovers and this was a 6 point game in the 4th against an offense decimated with injuries. 17 minute time differential was the difference. If MSU has a shot the play with Ohio St they need to continue to get better. As a Husker fan, I will be rooting for Michigan State the rest of the way.