With conference play now in full swing, it did not take long for one of the most massive games to greet Big Ten fans. When Nebraska travels to Michigan State on Saturday night, the eyes of the nation will be back on the Big Ten to see which of these teams will remain in the discussion for a College Football Playoff appearance.
Both of these teams currently stand atop the power rankings and this is the only inter-division game between top contenders for Indianapolis this season. Thus, this early October game demands attention not just from Spartans and Cornhuskers fans.
This will be one of several previews Andy and I will bring you leading up to this momentous game, and this article will take a look at how Bo Pelini and Mark Dantonio have built these programs to be two of the most prominent in the Big Ten conference.
When Bo Pelini took over for Bill Callahan in 2008, he inherited a messy situation thanks to Callahan not recruiting well (and recruiting for a different type of pass-oriented attack on offense). However, Pelini made the most of his situation and immediately led the Cornhuskers to a 9-4 record in 2008 followed by two Big 12 Championship Game appearances.
He did it with defense first and foremost. Callahan’s final team in 2007 was an offensive juggernaut, but defensively it was a train wreck. The Blackshirts defense gave up 477 yards per game and nearly 38 points per game, which led to many stumbles and losses, especially on the road. Even more embarrassing, the Cornhuskers were outscored and outgained by the competition that season, a rare occurrence in Lincoln.
Of course, it always helps to build a defense when a transcendent talent like Ndamukong Suh leads the defensive front, and Pelini was able to build around that centerpiece to make a dominant defense within just two seasons. Although Nebraska also stepped back on offense in 2009, the defense was good enough to win the Big 12 North Division in 2009 and 2010.
Of course, then Pelini was forced to adjust once again, as Nebraska jumped into the Big Ten for the 2011 season. Despite some learning curve and tough schedules the first two seasons, Nebraska has maintained roughly a similar level of success on offense and defense, while continuing to end seasons at 9-4 or 10-4.
On offense, Pelini has recruited strong athletes to fill the quarterback and especially the running back depth chart positions. Despite the strong efforts of Rex Burkhead, Ameer Abdullah has emerged as the best running back this program has had in two decades. His talent and strength have proven even more true with Nebraska breaking in many new starters on the offensive line in 2014.
That’s exactly the foundation Pelini has striven to build over the past six years. His philosophy is one that many old school Big Ten and Nebraska fans will appreciate: a dominant running game complemented by a solid (and sometimes shutdown) defense. Abdullah is the piece that has been missing, and he could drive his team to finally move beyond the four-loss seasons that have defined the six-year tenure of Pelini so far (as well as drive himself to New York for the Heisman Ceremony).
Although Pelini has not found the same formula for completely dominating on defense as the team had in 2009 and 2010, his teams have held the opposition to about 25 points per game and about 360 yards per game in all three of his Big Ten seasons. That’s more than good enough when the offense is scoring about a touchdown more per game.
About the only thing that can be a long term problem to point to under Pelini is ball security. The Cornhuskers have finished with minus double-digit turnover margins in three of his six seasons, and this includes each of the last two seasons. These turnovers have come up at the worst times, such as the five turnovers that helped Michigan State escape Lincoln with a 41-28 win last November.
Bo Pelini has re-established the identity of Nebraska football that was present during the dominant run under Tom Osborne (and the respectable seasons under Frank Solich as well). Sometimes the most simple approach is the best for program building, and although Pelini gets some pressure to take Nebraska to the next level, it is difficult to argue with three conference championship game appearances in six seasons when those seasons have been split between two very different conferences.
And if it weren’t for Michigan State, Nebraska may have one or two more conference championship appearances (the Spartans won the Legends Division in 2011 and 2013, Nebraska in 2012).
Plus, Nebraska has a 17-7 record in the first three years of Big Ten play, which trails only Michigan State (18-6) and Ohio State (19-5) in the conference. With Wisconsin being the only other West Division team with a winning conference record over the same span, the door is open more than ever for Pelini to keep improving this football program.
Meanwhile in East Lansing, Mark Dantonio walked into a much worse situation when he took over as coach in 2007. The Spartans had never recaptured the magic from the late 1990s when Nick Saban briefly walked the sidelines, and John L. Smith had turned this program into a perennial losing record.
In retrospect, the foundation of a program he built in Cincinnati proves Dantonio knows how to succeed, and he implemented the same plan that worked for him as a defensive assistant under Jim Tressel at OSU and under Nick Saban in the 1990s, as well as what worked while head coach in Cincinnati: an emphasis on defense above everything else.
The Spartans have recruited with this focus in mind for 8 years. The proof shows as Michigan State reloads on that side of the ball every season while putting up results similar to some of the best Jim Tressel teams that dominated the last decade of Big Ten conference play.
It took about four years to see the clear results, but Michigan State has held opponents to 18.4, 16.3, and 13.2 points per game the last three seasons (and 277, 274, and 252 total yards per game). These statistics put all other defenses in the conference to shame.
Thus, perhaps it should come as no surprise that Michigan State has not missed a beat in 2014 despite having to replace several big names on defense like Denicos Allen, Max Bullough, and Darqueze Dennard. Of course, the defense struggled in the second half against Oregon, but there are not many teams that can stick with the Ducks for four quarters without some lapses or loss of quality. This week will provide a great barometer as Nebraska and Ameer Abdullah provide the biggest test since the Spartans failed to contain Marcus Mariota.
With the exception of 2008 and 2012, Michigan State has also been relatively consistent on offense during Dantonio’s tenure. He has proven to be willing to take some risks in special teams and offensive play calling to get points on the board, and this creative and bold approach has paid off many times thanks to the strength of the defense.
Essentially, the only times Dantonio has struggled to put out a competent offense on the field is when he has to break in a new quarterback. Kirk Cousins developed into the career passing leader at the school, but his first season in 2008 was inefficient. Likewise, in 2012 and early 2013 Connor Cook developed behind Andrew Maxwell while watching Maxwell struggle, for the most part. Cook then took over and became one of the most efficient passers in the conference.
Thus, much like previous seasons, Michigan State has a strong attack led by a powerful running back (Jeremy Langford) and the passing prowess of a solid quarterback (Cook). That setup makes for many dominant wins when combined with the lock down defense, just like when Michigan State defeated all nine Big Ten opponents by 10 or more points last season.
Dantonio finally broke through with a conference championship and Rose Bowl appearance and win in 2013, but this team has been in the mix with three of the last four seasons having 11 wins or more. In each of those seasons, the Spartans have not lost at home (22-0 overall). All of which makes this year’s schedule so favorable for the Spartans, as Nebraska is followed by Michigan and Ohio State as teams that must travel to East Lansing.
Home dominance, a ridiculous defense, and solid development of running backs and quarterbacks to run a competent offense has been the formula for Mark Dantonio. The results speak for themselves, with two division titles during the Legends-Leaders era and the second-best conference record over those three seasons (18-6).
Certainly both of these football programs have benefited from some good circumstances, including coaching turmoil and inconsistency at Wisconsin, Penn State, and Michigan as well as the end of the Jim Tressel era at OSU. But Pelini and Dantonio have stuck to similar principles that are tried and true, even in this era of most college football teams playing amazing offense and mediocre or weak defense.
Even though Pat Fitzgerald and Kirk Ferentz have longer tenures than these coaches, there is little doubt that these two men have built more consistent top contenders than anyone else in the conference (hence the long tenures of both). Perhaps there’s a lesson in that for all Big Ten programs: be patient and let a coach build up over a full four-year recruiting cycle and then see if the results come in. Many times, they probably will, as long as the coach is good at the approach he chooses to take.
Strong defense, competent offense. The teams in red and green jerseys could switch sidelines and it likely would not make much of a difference, as Pelini and Dantonio find success by building on similar principles. That makes for a highly compelling mirror match of sorts, as we see whether Dantonio can continue to turn around a series that was all Nebraska (7-1 overall) before the Spartan win in 2013.
Saturday night, even if you aren’t a fan of one of these teams, tune in and appreciate two great coaches working at their craft. Regardless of the outcome this weekend, both programs are built for long term success. Which is exactly what the Big Ten needs more and more these days.
Let’s hope for a good game for the nation to enjoy, and for a playoff contender favorite to emerge from this game.
Welcome back, smash-mouth Big Ten football (thanks to Pelini and Dantonio).
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