The 21st-ranked Nebraska Cornhuskers are in for a very difficult Big Ten Conference clash as they pay a visit to the Michigan State Spartans.
Since dropping a 63-38 decision to Ohio State on Oct. 6, Nebraska has managed to work its way back into the Top-25 by pulling off a pair of impressive wins on the road at Northwestern (29-28) and at home against Michigan (23-9). The Cornhuskers are now 3-1 in Big Ten play, tied atop the Legends Division, and head coach Bo Pelini knows that his team has their work cut out for them over the last four games of the regular season.
“My message to the team is you get what you earn in this world,” Pelini said. “They are not going to give you anything. You have to earn it and you have to be ready to take it. It’s as simple as that. It’s not going to just happen by mistake. All we can control is how we prepare for (Saturday’s game).”
Michigan State came into the season with high expectations, and it even rose all the way to No. 10 in the polls following and 2-0 start, but since then things have been rocky to say the least. The Spartans are all but eliminated from the Big Ten race after suffering losses to Ohio State (17-16), Iowa (19-16 in double OT), and Michigan (12-10), although they are coming off an impressive 16-13 overtime against Wisconsin in Madison last week.
“Every football team every season has defining moments, one way or the other, and I think (the win over Wisconsin) defined us a little bit,” head coach Mark Dantonio said, whose team’s three conference losses came by a combined six points. “We’ve been close … and what I’d like to say I guess is basically, ‘hey, we’re not going to quit.’ We won’t quit on people. We’ve always hung in there and that’s a tribute to our team leadership on our football team and our chemistry as a group of people and individuals.”
The Cornhuskers have won all six previous meetings against the Spartans, including last season’s inaugural matchup as Big Ten rivals, 24-3 in Lincoln.
Nebraska features the Big Ten’s best offense both in terms of scoring (39.3 ppg) and yardage (489.1 ypg) thanks in large part to the seventh-ranked rushing attack in the nation (264.1 ypg).
Ameer Abdullah garners most of the work out of the backfield and ranks fourth among conference running backs with 716 rushing yards and eight touchdowns. Rex Burkhead has been explosive as well with 405 yards and three scores on 47 carries (8.6 ypc), although he’s missed three games due to injury.
Quarterback Taylor Martinez also gets in the mix rushing the ball with 461 yards and six touchdowns, but he’s far more than just a scrambler, completing 66 percent of his passes for 222.6 passing ypg with 16 touchdowns to just five interceptions.
With 28 catches for 591 yards and six touchdowns, Kenny Bell has been an outstanding big-play receiver for Martinez. His 21.1 yards per catch is second-highest in the conference among players with at least 20 receptions.
The defense (25.4 ppg, 336.4 ypg) has really hunkered since allowing 63 points to Ohio State a few weeks back, surrendering just 18.5 ppg in its last two wins.
Eric Martin has been active behind the line of scrimmage with 10 tackles for loss and 6.5 sacks. The team has just six interceptions on the season, but three came last week against Michigan.
The Michigan State offense has not been very explosive, scoring less than 20 ppg, but it has one of the nation’s most dependable running backs in Le’Veon Bell.
Bell is the definition of a workhorse back as he has earned 247 of the team’s 324 carries. Although his yards per carry has not been outstanding (4.3), the production is unquestioned with 1,061 rushing yards and eight touchdowns. He’s also more than capable as a receiver out of the backfield with 29 receptions.
Even with a top-notch running back to help take the pressure off him, Andrew Maxwell has not had a very strong season. He’s completed less than 56 percent of his passes for 2,015 yards with nine touchdowns to five interceptions. His 113.4 efficiency rating ranks only above Iowa’s James Vanderberg among starting Big Ten quarterbacks.
Maxwell likes to spread the wealth in the passing game. The Spartans have six players with at least 20 receptions, led by Keith Mumphrey (32 receptions, 412 yards, TD).
While the offense has been mediocre at best, the defense has shined, ranking first in the conference in both points allowed (15.0 ppg) and yards allowed (269.1) per game.
Max Bullough (77 tackles, nine TFL, two sacks, INT) and Denicos Allen (61 tackles, eight TFL, sack, INT) headline perhaps the best linebacking corps in the league. As strong as the unit has been, it struggles getting after the quarterback with just 11 sacks.