Last year, the Nebraska Cornhuskers turned in a fantastic defensive performance against the Michigan State Spartans which led to both a 24-3 victory and distribution of the Blackshirts. The following week, Taylor Martinez’s best game of the season couldn’t offset a team sleepwalking through a visit by the Northwestern Wildcats. History’s set to repeat itself, but away from friendly confines and MSU isn’t the Big Ten’s Upset Special.
Nebraska’s doing well for itself this season, putting up 30 points per Big Ten contest. If the Huskers can find a comfort zone and hold onto the football, they’re a danger to score every on drive. Unfortunately, the Big Red’s shot itself in the foot far too many times this season. This has resulted in games far closer than necessary (a 29-28 comeback win versus the Wildcats) or an outright loss (a 63-38 drubbing at the hands of the Ohio State Buckeyes).
While not a scoring machine, Michigan State usually plays disciplined football. Tied for No. 64 in turnover margin at +1, they’re still the envy of No. 111 Nebraska at -8, tied with Colorado. The Cornhuskers simply can’t afford to turn the ball over and expect to score let alone win, especially in East Lansing.
Sparty’s defense is stout ranked Nos. 10, 7, 14 and five for scoring (15 points), rushing (91.2 yards), passing (172.8 yards) and total defense (267.4 yards), respectively. How does Nebraska tackle the challenge of moving on this unit? One statistic sticks out – Michigan State has only nine sacks this year, good for a ranking of No. 101.
The winner of this game will be defined by three things: Whether or not Martinez has time to throw, if Nebraska can limit turnovers and if kicker Brett Maher truly has his swagger back.
The Cornhuskers are going to have to double-team junior defensive end William Gholston all day. After Martinez’s ankle was tweaked last week versus Michigan, getting smacked by the Spartans’ menacing defensive end won’t help matters. If the Big Ten’s premiere receiving corps gets into a groove, Nebraska has a chance at getting ahead early and never looking back.
MSU simply hasn’t shown a knack for causing turnovers, but that hasn’t stopped the Huskers from gift wrapping some ugly fumbles. If Tim Beck’s offense can stay above -1 in the turnover battle, Nebraska has a good chance of walking away victorious. Bo Pelini’s crew could even pummel the Spartans if they manage to sneak into +1 territory. If Nebraska is staring at a -3 margin as it was against the Wildcats and Buckeyes, loss No. 3 is likely.
Finally, the Huskers have to account for Michigan State’s ability to frustrate and grind against opposing offenses. The Spartans stop third down conversions extremely well, allowing their opposition a first down just over 30 percent of the time (No. 17 nationally).
Fortunately for Nebraska, getting into the end zone isn’t required to tack points onto the scoreboard as kicker Brett Maher appears to have returned to form.
He contributed 11 points in the Huskers’ 23-9 win over the Michigan Wolverines, nine of which were converted field goals featuring a 51-yard long. Should the Big Red offense get into range (also known as past the 50-yard line), Maher may be the game’s MVP come the final whistle.
Michigan State has the ability to derail a Nebraska team that suddenly has a very promising path ahead of them, but the Huskers’ chances of keeping Sparty winless against them is just as likely.
Brandon Cavanaugh is a college football columnist for Rant Sports and member of the Football Writers Association of America. Feel free to follow him on Twitter and join in on the conversation