Published Wednesday, November 13, 2013 at 12:01 am / Updated at 9:20 am
Chatelain: Big plays are a big need for Huskers against Spartans

His best days were back in 2010 — Washington, Kansas State and Oklahoma State.

But if I had to boil down the real Taylor Martinez experience into one afternoon — if I have to put one game tape in the time capsule to watch 50 years from now — I'd pick Michigan State 2012.

It was a 3-hour, 52-minute roller coaster of peaks and valleys, jaw-dropping dashes and head-scratching errors, back-breaking turnovers and a fourth-quarter rally, even a little controversy. Vintage T-Magic. It ended with the quarterback finding Jamal Turner in the corner of the end zone with six seconds left.

One year later, the Spartan defense will find a very different Nebraska attack. With (a healthy) Martinez, the Huskers were one of the most explosive offenses in the country. Without him, they're struggling to create big plays.

They can do without Martinez's three interceptions in last year's Michigan State game. But to beat the nation's top-ranked defense, the Huskers need those peaks.

In an era when most defenses are content with “bend, but don't break,” the Spartans opt for aggressiveness. They pack the box with linebackers and safeties, daring opponents to beat their suffocating cornerbacks for big chunks of yardage.

“Their philosophy,” said NU wideout Kenny Bell, “is we're gonna man you up. If you can beat us, which they don't think anybody can, they're gonna take that chance. They're gonna stop the run.”

As a result, it's a big week for his position group, Bell said.

“We're gonna win or lose the football game depending on if the receivers make plays.”

Players don't usually speak in such bold, simple terms. But Bell has seen the film. He knows exactly what Michigan State stands for. There's no use sugarcoating it.

Sparty's first-team defense has given up 11 touchdown drives all year. Only four of those drives went more than 60 yards. In each of the four, the offense had a play of 35-plus yards.

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In other words, it's impossible to go the long field on Pat Narduzzi's defense without the big play. The Spartans will not yield a 10-play, 70-yard drive full of 5- and 10-yard gains.

Think of them like Randy Johnson or Roger Clemens. You know you're not getting 10 hits. But if you can square up a few 98-mph fastballs — if you can get three doubles and a homer — it could be enough.

A year ago in East Lansing, Nebraska had more lumber in the lineup. Martinez exploded for 365 total yards, including runs of 35, 59 and 71 yards. He connected with Kyler Reed for 38 yards, with Bell for 33, with Quincy Enunwa for 22.

Of course, he also fumbled once — the Huskers luckily recovered. He also threw the three picks, one of which was returned 96 yards for a touchdown before luckily getting called back because of an MSU personal foul.

It was Martinez's quintessential boom-or-bust performance and there was just enough “boom” to bust the Spartans.

Feels like a long time ago. Martinez's career is likely finished and the big-play element of Nebraska's offense has gone missing. Against Michigan and Northwestern, NU had only one gain of 30-plus yards — that was the Hail Mary to Jordan Westerkamp.

Look at the final drive at the Big House. Yes, NU went 14 plays and 75 yards. But it could've been much easier had Armstrong, on the first play, hit tight end Cethan Carter wide open down the middle.

In 2012, Nebraska's offense had 33 plays of 30-plus yards; this year NU has 17.

Last year, Nebraska had 14 plays of 40-plus yards; this year NU has six.

Last year, Nebraska had 11 plays of 50-plus yards — only 10 offenses in the country had more. This year, NU has one — only three schools, including Michigan State, have fewer.

It's not just offense where the big plays are missing. Last year, Nebraska had five punt returns of 20-plus yards; this year NU has none.

So what does Tim Beck do?

At Minnesota, the Husker offensive coordinator took several unsuccessful shots down the field against man-to-man coverage. It was misguided because the Gophers never proved they could stop the run.

Michigan State's rush defense, which yields 43 yards per game, may not give Beck a choice. If the Huskers can't run against an eight-man box, Beck will be forced to attack the Spartan corners. Bell and Enunwa must win those battles.

Beck, speaking Tuesday after practice, wasn't ready to give up on the running game yet.

“They try to dare you,” he said. “Some people take those dares and throw a lot of long foul balls, (creating) second-and-10 and third-and-10. It looks good, but they're not accomplishing very much.”

Maybe he's right. Maybe NU's patchwork offensive line can beat Michigan State up front. Maybe NU can nickel and dime the Spartans for long drives.

It happened in 2011. The Huskers gained only 270 total yards. They didn't need any more because the Blackshirts dominated Kirk Cousins. That's the ideal blueprint.

But if the Spartans' offense shows up this time, then pressure shifts to Beck, Armstrong and the Husker receivers.

If there's ever a time to search the playbook and find a little magic, this is it.

* * *

>> Video: The Big Red Today Show, Nov. 12:

Contact the writer: Dirk Chatelain    |   402-649-1461    |  

Dirk Chatelain is a staff writer for The Omaha World-Herald and covers Nebraska football and general assignments.

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