EAST LANSING - Following Michigan State's 24-3 loss to Nebraska on Saturday, Cornhusker defensive backs said they were able to anticipate the routes of Spartan receivers, based on formation, down and distance.
During Tuesday's weekly press conference, Spartan head coach Mark Dantonio was asked about those comments for the first time and refrained from conceding it as a problem.
When asked whether there was a concern in the variety of play calling, Dantonio said: "No, I'm not concerned about that. It's real easy to talk that after the game. I'm concerning myself with the future."
Later, Dantonio acknowledged: "They did a nice job recognizing the routes that we were running, and they walled us up. They took away B.J. (Cunningham) and when we don't have explosive plays, there's a difference there.
"They did a great job in pass coverage. Credit them and what they did. Credit their coaches, however you want to do it. But it wasn't that we were running the same patterns. It wasn't just the same monotonous thing. It was different routes, different things that we were doing, and when (that happens), the quarterback has to choke the ball, and that's when the rush gets to them.
"But Kirk Cousins did a nice job a couple times scrambling out of the rush, but that's what happened."
Cunningham was held without a reception for the first time in 41 games. Nebraska had success playing with two deep safeties, often moving one of the safeties farther to the outside than is customary in cover-two zone in order to help bracket and reroute Cunningham.
This often left Nebraska with a wider void in the middle of the field between the two safeties than is customary in cover-two. This is often an inviting target for a middle seam route, especially for a tight end, but the Spartans often kept tight end Dion Sims in for pass protection rather than sending him to attack the middle.
On a rare opportunity against man-to-man coverage, MSU threw in Sims' direction on the second play of the Spartans' third possession. He became wide open on a corner route as Nebraska defenders bit on a run fake. Cousins hit Sims in stride on what would have gone for an explosive play of at least 30 yards if Sims had not dropped the pass.
Nebraska rarely met Michigan State with man-to-man coverage the rest of the day, limiting chances for Sims, or any other receiver, to run free in a similar manner.
"Nebraska did an excellent job walling our receivers up, tight ends included," Dantonio said.
Outnumbered In The Secondary
On multiple occasions when Michigan State kept a tight end in for pass protection, the Spartans were doing so against a new Nebraska pre-snap defensive front. The Huskers often stood all four defensive linemen up in a two-point stance and walked around at pre-snap in an attempt to confuse pass protection assignments.
Nebraska almost always came with a four-man rush out of this walk-around front, or "chaos," as it is called in Michigan State terminology.
MSU often ended up with six or seven in pass protection against four pass rushers, often choosing to protect rather than attack the middle seam or other areas.
This left MSU receivers outnumbered by Husker defensive backs in their pass routes.
"The bottom line was they had us walled up and covered, whether it was three (defensive backs) on two (receivers) or four on three, but they always had somebody underneath a player," Dantonio said. "(Nebraska) predominantly rushed four people the majority of the game, from a chaos type of alignment on 3rd down, which they were moving around, no particular movement, and they'd hit the line of scrimmage. We couldn't get open."
What About The Run?
A common criticism after Michigan State's loss - and during it, when listening to commentary by ESPN's Chris Spielman - was that the Spartans interrupted a solid level of success on the ground by going to the air too often.
MSU tailbacks carried 22 times for 96 yards, for a healthy 4.3 yards per carry.
"As far as running the football, you know, you can't run it every single time," Dantonio said. "But I did think we ran the ball okay. But then the score indicated that we had to do other things, as well."
Dantonio indicated there was a plan to stick more firmly to the run in the second half. But Nebraska took the second half kickoff and marched for a touchdown, making the score 17-3 and changing Michigan State's mentality.
"Instead of getting the ball back and getting our offense in rhythm running the ball, which we were able to do in the football game, it becomes 17-3, and we've got to throw it a little bit more," Dantonio said. "So when it goes 17-3 and they've got 13 minutes or whatever it was of the third quarter, it becomes a different football game. You can't continue to run the ball when the score gets a little bit lopsided."
Michigan State ranks No. 12 in the Big Ten in rushing offense and 11th in rush attempts. The Spartans are the only team in the Big Ten averaging less than 4 yards per rush at 3.7.
"When you look at our rushing offense, we played against Ohio State, played against Michigan and obviously played against Wisconsin and played against Nebraska," Dantonio said "For the most part those are pretty good defenses. And so we want to run the football, make no mistakes about that. We want to be balanced and run the football. I think that's a necessity. We need to run the football. I think we can, yes. We're constantly trying to find different ways to do that, as well."
Notes And Quotes
Linebacker Steve Gardiner and running back Larry Caper left the Nebraska game in the early going due to head or upper body injuries. Linebacker Chris Norman missed the game with a shoulder injury.
Dantonio said he expects all of the injured players to be back this weekend.
"We did get banged up and we lost some guys for the game," Dantonio said. "I think that those guys will be back. They may be hindered a little bit during the week here for a day of practice or maybe a little bit tentative or however we say it, put them in a yellow shirt early in practice where they can practice with no contact, but they should all make it back. I would anticipate everybody being there."
Dantonio said redshirt freshman two-way player Tony Lippett continues to provide needed depth as a reserve wide receiver and the first cornerback off the bench, despite decreased playing time in recent weeks.
"Tony did start the game last week, and he played about 12 plays on the defensive side of the ball," Dantonio said. "With Bennie Fowler being out, Tony got some reps on the offensive side of the ball. Then with some injuries on the defensive side of the ball, we had to move Tony back over to the defensive side of the ball. Fowler came back, so he (Lippett) is the third corner.
"He's the next corner in the game. We're going to usually keep the (starting) corners in there. But he shows up on special teams right now.
"He's going to be a great player for us. I think he's probably a little disappointed, as well, but we go back and forth as to where we're going to play him. You know, there's four games left, so we'll see how it all shakes out. But he's a good football player, great young man, great person, great attitude."
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