Blackshirts, outmuscled by Michigan and Wisconsin, steel for more smash-mouth against Spartans

Blackshirts, outmuscled by Michigan and Wisconsin, steel for more smash-mouth against Spartans
The Huskers rank 90th in rushing yards allowed per game (194) while the Spartans are 117th in ground yards accumulated (118.4). (Z LONG/THE WORLD-HERALD)

LINCOLN — Luke Gifford has a pretty good idea about what Michigan State will do on offense. Then again, the linebacker also knew how Michigan and Wisconsin would operate before power-running Nebraska into submission.

The Husker co-captain said Tuesday that the success of the defense against the Spartans won’t necessarily come down to scheme or even talent. With another Saturday morning kickoff amid conditions trending to be below freezing, the difference will come down to good old-fashioned toughness.

“At the end of the day, the biggest thing is being physical,” said Gifford, who will be one of 19 Nebraska seniors suiting up for their final home game. “You play a team like this, you gotta be as physical as they are or more. That’s what we’ve been working on this week, and trying to make practices as physical as we can.”

This won’t be the headline matchup of the game — that belongs to Nebraska’s 22nd-ranked rushing offense against an MSU group that limits the ground attack better than anyone else in the country. But it will provide the Blackshirts a chance to prove they’ve moved on from the debacles against Michigan and Wisconsin, when they allowed 285 and 370 rushing yards, respectively, in humbling defeats.

Against Illinois’ triple-option offense last week — led by the legs of quarterback AJ Bush — Big Red allowed a season-worst 383 yards (7.82 per carry) on the ground. Defensive coordinator Erik Chinander said there were “many, many easily correctable issues” relating to run-fit problems. Players’ eyes were in the wrong places, and tackling was inconsistent.

“Forecast says it’s going to be cold and windy so, you know, (they’ll) probably get packed in and run the football and try to do what they probably are really good at — being physical and running the football,” Chinander said. “That’s what we kind of expect right now.”

While the Huskers rank 90th in rushing yards allowed per game (194), the Spartans have been even less effective in ground yards accumulated (117th, 118.4). Their leading rusher, Connor Heyward, has 359 yards.

Neither quarterback is a serious threat to run. Starter Brian Lewerke sat out much of last week against Ohio State because of an injured shoulder, and backup Rocky Lombardi is completing just 48.6 percent of his passes in six contests. The Spartans rank 69th in passing offense (233.3 yards/game), but they haven’t generated more than 24 points in any of their past six games.

In other words, outside linebackers coach Jovan Dewitt said, sound and tough defensive football should be a winning recipe. His players will be trading some coverage tasks they ran against spread teams with lining up opposite tight ends such as the Spartans’ 6-foot-6, 296-pound Chase Gianacakos.

“Assignment-wise, it remains a lot of the same,” Dewitt said. “But the physical nature of it’s going to change a little bit.”

Said defensive lineman Ben Stille: “I mean, we play in the Big Ten, so we’re used to it, week in and week out. A lot of teams come in and try to be physical, so we’ll be ready for it.”

The challenge in the secondary will be to keep eye discipline, senior safety Aaron Williams said. Like many power-run teams, Michigan State can lull a team to sleep with sweeps and counters before uncorking a big pass play.

Mistake-free drives and jarring tackles at the point of attack haven’t been strengths of the Blackshirts this season. They know that needs to change against Michigan State — and another old-school offense in Iowa on Black Friday — to keep the wins coming under first-year coach Scott Frost and change the narrative that they can’t handle power football.

“The biggest thing for the secondary this week is just know the coverage, where your eyes are supposed to be and your keys,” Williams said. “ And we should be all right.”

Michigan State at Nebraska

When: 11 a.m. Saturday

Where: Memorial Stadium, Lincoln

Radio: 103.1 FM

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