On the heels of yet another bye week, the Michigan State Spartans head into arguably the most important game of their 2013 season, which will take place against the Nebraska Cornhuskers on the road with first place in the Legends Division on the line.
Since joining the Big Ten, the Huskers have posed a problem for the Spartans. Michigan State is 0-2 against Nebraska since 2011, with a crushing road defeat coming just before last year’s heartbreaking loss in the final seconds which was also marred by penalty problems. With these recent losses fresh in their minds, the Spartans will try for major revenge on the road. Spartan Sideline provides the keys to that revenge becoming a reality.
Michigan State’s Key To Victory: Stop the run.
If there’s one team who embodies what Michigan State likes to do almost exactly, it’s the Cornhuskers. As a team, they run the football extremely well, rushing for over 246.5 yards per-game, which is 15th in the nation. Ameer Abdullah had a solid game against the Spartans last year, grinding out 110 yards on 22 carries. Against the Spartans at home, he’ll need a similar performance, especially considering Nebraska will miss Taylor Martinez’s scrambling ability. Abdullah went for 105 yards and a score last week, and has only been held under 100 yards once this season (UCLA). The Spartans, of course, are the strongest run defense in college football, so something’s got to give. If they can stop Abdullah and the ground game, they can choke out everything else Nebraska likes to do offensively from the inside out.
Nebraska’s Key To Victory: Pass the football with success.
As mentioned, Nebraska runs the ball quite well, but their one question mark is the passing game. Without Martinez, the Cornhuskers have only 199.2 yards per-game through the air, which is not prolific at all. They complete the passes they need to win most of the time, but in order to beat a good defense like Michigan State’s from start to finish, they will need to hit a lot of big plays down the field to Quincey Enunwa and Kenny Bell. Both are solid receivers that Tommy Armstrong will have to find a way to work into the game despite the Spartans’ fantastic lock down corner duo of Darqueze Dennard and Trae Waynes.
Calhoun had a big day the last time he was on the field, racking up 2.5 sacks, six tackles and plenty of pressure against Michigan and making life miserable on Devin Gardner. A fantastic season has only gotten better for Calhoun, and Michigan State will need him to pressure young Armstrong in the pocket and force him into mistakes. Considering Nebraska had two turnovers on the road last week and have struggled with them all season, it could be another big day for Calhoun on Saturday.
Starting his senior year hot, Jean-Baptiste had an interception in the Cornhuskers’ first four games. Since he’s cooled off, and is looking for his first pick in Big Ten play for 2013. Connor Cook has struggled at times with interceptions this year, and he will have to watch out for Jean-Baptiste, who is a cagy veteran capable of locking down the other team’s top receivers. Jeremy Gallon didn’t do much with only five catches for 49 yards, so the Spartans will have to find a way to get Bennie Fowler and Macgarrett Kings Jr. the ball.
Most Important “State” Stat Of The Game: 313, the amount of rushing yards Michigan State allowed to Nebraska in East Lansing last year. 205 of those went to Martinez, who did plenty of ad-libbing on the ground after broken plays. Abdullah also collected 110 yards, so stopping him will be a must. Armstrong has only rushed for 69 yards as a career high, so he’s yet to prove that he can get the job done consistently. If the Spartans contain Armstrong and do not allow Abdullah to go over 100 yards, they will win the game. If there’s a repeat of last year, Nebraska will control the clock and win big.
Intangibles: Memorial Stadium.
It’s the one place the Spartans haven’t won lately, and the last time they played there, they got embarrassed under similar circumstances. Saturday represents a big chance for redemption after a missed opportunity in 2011, but how will the Spartans deal with the crowd? They’ve played and won in front of bigger, equally as intimidating audiences, but they’ve never won in Nebraska, which can lead to mental struggles. If those issues persist, the Spartans could wilt under the road pressure.
Prediction: To stay alive, Nebraska has beaten two teams the last two weeks who haven’t been playing well in 2013, one via miracle touchdown. Credit them for winning when victories were needed, but the Spartans’ defense will pose a major test to an offense which has had it’s share of struggles moving the football. Michigan State had the bye week to prepare, and for this group, that’s dangerous. Dating back to their first meeting in 1920, the Spartans are 0-6 all-time against the Cornhuskers, including thee losses in the state of Nebraska, so they’re due. Cook manages the game well again and the Spartans force a few critical turnovers which lead in a win. Michigan State 24, Nebraska 10
Max DeMara is a senior editor at The Detroit Sports Site. You can find him on Twitter @SportsGuyTheMax