Michigan State visits Nebraska (3:30 p.m. ET, ABC-ESPN2) Saturday in a Big Ten Legends Division showdown. The winner owns the inside track to Indianapolis and the league title game. Statistics favor the Spartans and their No. 1-ranked defense, but the Huskers are 9-1 at home as a member of the Big Ten. And MSU is 0-7 all-time against Nebraska, including 0-2 as a division foe over the past two years.
1. With those numbers in mind, what makes these Spartans different?
Chantel Jennings: This defense is just going to give every team fits. I've been really impressed with Ameer Abdullah but he hasn't faced a front seven like Michigan State's. The pressure the Spartans get against the run game and on opposing quarterbacks just forces other teams into mistakes and poor decisions. They've allowed just 24 rushing first downs this season. The next closest defenses? Alabama and Louisville … with 46. Streaks are streaks, but I think the more impressive streak of note in this situation is that Michigan State has gone nine games without allowing an opponent to rush for more than 100 yards. That streak matters in this game way more than the fact that MSU is winless against Nebraska.
Mitch Sherman: While the Spartans haven’t exactly faced an elite offense this year -- save for perhaps Indiana, which scored 28 points on MSU -- don’t rank Nebraska among that group, either. The Huskers deserved consideration as a top-tier unit before quarterback Taylor Martinez went down, followed by both starting offensive guards and left tackle Jeremiah Sirles. This week, junior Mike Moudy, the replacement at right guard, is doubtful with a shoulder injury. Additionally, junior receiver Jamal Turner, who caught the winning touchdown in the final seconds last year at Michigan State, remains out with a hamstring injury. The Huskers have struggled recently to move the football against mediocre defenses, so this challenge could overwhelm Nebraska.
2. Nebraska is riding a wave of momentum after emotional victories over Northwestern and Michigan. Will it matter on Saturday?
Sherman: Much like a week ago at Michigan, it depends on how Nebraska starts. The Huskers arrived in Ann Arbor on a high and jumped to a quick 10-0 lead. The fast start helped neutralize the huge crowd and provided an extra shot of confidence for freshman quarterback Tommy Armstrong and an injury-plagued offensive line. If Nebraska falls behind against Michigan State’s suffocating defense, the momentum will die in a hurry. But if the Huskers jump out, it might be the one-loss Spartans who have trouble handling the pressure.
Jennings: I totally agree with Mitch here. If Nebraska can get off to a really strong start, then that momentum can mean something. However, other teams have gotten off to good starts against MSU and it hasn't meant much. Michigan's first drive against Michigan State looked pretty solid (nine plays, 51 yards for a field goal). And then the rest of the game happened. But that game was played in Spartan Stadium and there's definitely something to be said for getting your fans in to the game. I think the Nebraska fans could affect the MSU offense more than it could affect the MSU defense, and even in a low scoring game, I think the experience of the Michigan State defense would find a way to win.
3. Connor Cook has brought stability to the MSU offense. How will he handle the environment in Lincoln?
Jennings: He's a confident kid and he told me earlier this season that he really doesn't get fazed by any of the external factors in those situations. I think the MSU offensive line has gotten better and better every game this season and those five guys are going to do everything they can to make sure Cook doesn't feel too much pressure. But getting to Cook will be the key here. The Nebraska defense is coming off a seven-sack performance against Michigan, but the MSU O-line has only allowed seven sacks all season.
Sherman: The Nebraska defense is making real strides this month. Confidence is growing as players improve at each level. Cook needs to keep an eye out for No. 44. Defensive end Randy Gregory sacked Devin Gardner three times last week, in something of a breakout game on the national level, but Gregory was well known to those who watch the Huskers closely. He's a force and will likely create problems for Cook and the Spartans. The sophomore quarterback would also be smart to watch out for fellow defensive end Avery Moss, plus blitzing safety Corey Cooper and cornerback Ciante Evans. And when the defense gets rolling, Memorial Stadium turns intimidating for a visiting QB.
4. So what must each team do to win?
Sherman: For Nebraska, it’s all about playing a clean game. The Huskers lost the turnover battle against Michigan and Northwestern. They lost important field position by failing to field a late first-half punt last week. And penalties killed a pair of late drives against the Wildcats. None of this can happen against the Spartans, who will make Nebraska pay for its mistakes. The Huskers might not need -- and likely won’t get -- a great deal of offensive production, but if the chance arrives to capitalize on a short field, they must cash in.
Jennings: I have a feeling this is going to be a relatively low-scoring game. So, each team is going to have to go for the big plays when it can. The MSU defense stacks the box and gets as much pressure on opposing quarterbacks as it can. The Nebraska offense will have to do is find a way to force MSU out of that game plan. If Armstrong can take some shots down field or Abdullah breaks out for a few big runs, then the Spartans won't be able to keep 10 guys up there. The same -- to a lesser degree -- is true of Cook and running back Jeremy Langford.