Know Thy Enemy is a Q&A where the perspective changes from the eyes of The State News to the eyes of the student newspaper of Michigan State's opponent. This week, The State News' football beat writer Jacob Smith spoke with football beat writer Joseph Maier of The Daily Nebraskan ahead of Saturday's Nebraska-Michigan State game.
In the last game at Spartan Stadium this season for the Michigan State Football team, the Spartans will look to get in the win column for the first time since week two as they are set to host Nebraska. MSU has lost six straight games coming into the matchup, and will try to turn it around on senior day. Kickoff is set for 12:00 p.m. on FS1.
Q: The Cornhusker defense has looked elite to date, allowing 47 points in the past three games to go along with 25 sacks and seven interceptions as a team. Who has stepped up on this side of the ball, and how do you feel this standard will affect the game on Saturday?
A: “Honestly it has been something I’ve never really seen before in my time here before, where every single guy is contributing very deep in the roster,” Maier said. “Defensive coordinator Tony White uses a deep rotation of guys. I’d say as far as specific guys, Nash Hutmacher up front, defensive lineman, he’s been a big influence and guys have had to double him a lot.
Princewill Umanmielen, he’s a true freshman, he’s come along as of late. And then the cornerbacks, Quinton Newsome (and) Tommi Hill, have both played kind of well and have kind of stepped up this year compared to previous years. Luke Reimer has always been a kind of staple of this defense, but I mean it's kind of hard to point to one guy. It seems that every play there is five or six guys swarming the ball.
It doesn’t matter how highly you were recruited, what your role was preseason, you’re making plays. They haven’t had really any injuries either. DeShon Singleton, defensive tackle, has been the only guy that’s missed extended time. So it’s healthy, it’s a deep unit, and there’s guys that make plays all over the field.”
Q: Offensively, sophomore quarterback Heinrich Haarberg has appeared in seven of Nebraska’s eight games, taking over the starting role. With only 838 passing yards and seven touchdowns to go with four interceptions in the air, his legs have proven to be more effective, as he has rushed for 446 yards and four touchdowns. Has the substitution early on proved to be the right decision?
A: “I was pro putting him in there earlier,” Maier said. “We saw in the Minnesota game to open the season it was very sloppy from Jeff Sims, who was the starter to start the year. He played all throughout the spring and practice and everything. He did not look ready for the job. Multiple horrible interceptions, multiple dropped snaps, and they ended up losing that game largely because of that. I think if we go back and play that game over again it’s a win for Nebraska.
And then the next week against Colorado, same problems. Terrible interceptions, three dropped fumbles, two of them got recovered by Colorado, and so he was kind of just a turnover machine. Defense was continually put out to dry, you know, having to go in with their backs against the red zone right away. So at the end of the day it just wasn’t the right fit.
Haarberg comes in, he’s limited, he’s not the quarterback of the future in my eyes. He doesn’t have the greatest arm, he has some questionable decision making, but he is a big, strong, fast guy that will run straight through you. He’s a great leader it seems, a lot of heart. He kind of plays with an underdog mentality that we haven’t really seen from the quarterback position. They’ve started to get him involved with some designed option runs and quarterback draws and, you know, designed plays. Definitely limited through the air. It doesn’t help that his entire wide receiver core that started the year is now out for the season, but he’s still got an arm that can make throws.
We’ve seen some big plays down the field to the true freshmen wide receivers the last couple weeks. We’ve seen him make some nice throws there. We’ve also seen him make a lot of mistakes. But the biggest thing to me is that he has not turned the ball over as much as Sims did. He’s still dropped some fumbles, but he’ll dive right on them. He’s thrown some bad interceptions, but not so much that the defense can’t hold. He’s overall just been much safer with the ball and kind of let the defense speak for itself.
I mean this defense isn’t going to give up more than 20 points a game, so as long as he can reach those 20 points you are pretty much good to go. He’s done a great job of stepping there. Not the quarterback of the future I’d say, but he’s got what it takes for right now.”
Q: The leading receiver for the Cornhuskers, senior wide receiver Billy Kemp, IV only has 216 yards – the most on the team. Has the offense been effective, and can they produce against Michigan State’s defense if the passing game isn’t working?
A: “It’s hard to know really because of how experienced it is,” Maier said. “So starting the year, Billy Kemp IV was, you know, supposed to be that number one guy in the slot. He’s not out for the season, he’s out for awhile. And then Marcus Washington, another guy that was kind of a deep threat, out for the year. A couple other guys on the depth chart even left the team or got injured, so right now it’s two true freshmen at wide receiver, and a redshirt sophomore that never saw the ball last season.
He’s (Haarberg) kind of had to work with whatever he’s got, but the nice thing is that both those guys – Malachi Coleman, he’s a true freshman, and Jaylen Lloyd, also a true freshman – have explosive playmaking abilities and they both took a play action pass for a big touchdown in back to back weeks. That has kind of been the extent of the passing game though. There has not been a lot of chunk plays through the air, and they haven’t really needed them.
In the last three games against Illinois, Northwestern, and Purdue, they haven’t really needed any big chunk plays, but they do have the opportunity to be explosive. However, the run game is definitely the identity of this team. Matt Rhule has talked about it all year – he has said this is a running team, we’re going to "run the ball down your throat," and that has really been how they’ve found their success, even with the injuries ... there’s been three.
Rahmir Johnson, the current running back, he was fourth on the depth chart coming into the year. But he has filled that role really nicely. He has quickness and he kind of just feels the field well, better than some of the guys that were slotted ahead of him at the beginning of the year.
So I kind of expect them to jam the ball down Michigan State’s throat a little bit. That’s what they’ve done the past couple of weeks. It’s worked well, holding onto the ball as long as possible, kind of just working your way down the field as much as you can.”
Q: Score prediction?
A: “I would say as of now, 24-10 Nebraska.”
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