LINCOLN, Neb. -- Sparty comes calling for Nebraska at Memorial Stadium on Saturday at 3:30 p.m. ET. It’s time to learn if the Legends Division race is all but over, or if it'll stretch to the weekend after Thanksgiving. Here’s what to watch:
Tommy Armstrong Jr.'s composure. We’ve talked for much of the past two months about Nebraska’s uncertainty at the quarterback position. So why stop now, with all drama seemingly set aside? Armstrong is entrenched as the starter, and he produced a performance last week at Michigan that looked like a coming-of-age moment, particularly the winning drive. The freshman is poised beyond his years, but the Michigan State defense poses a test unlike any that he’s faced.
Nebraska’s surging defense. Is it for real? The Blackshirts’ progress over the past two weeks looks real. You don’t keep two foes out of the end zone on 17 straight drives with smoke and mirrors. But the Huskers defense has teased us before. Remember Purdue? That near shutout came before Minnesota punched Nebraska in the mouth. Consider the level of competition the past two weeks; it’s not great. But neither are the Spartans on offense, so perhaps the Huskers will extend their strong defensive play another week.
The Spartans D: No doubt, these guys are for real. Michigan State brought nearly half of this starting group to Lincoln two years ago, losing 24-3. Last year in East Lansing, the Huskers scored in the final seconds to win 28-24. Some wondered this week if the Spartans might lack for confidence because of the past two years. Unlikely. If anything, the Michigan State defense will come out hungrier, more angry and aggressive.
The Huskers’ O-line: Who’s going to play and where? First, guards Spencer Long and Jake Cotton went down with knee injuries. Then left tackle Jeremiah Sirles suffered the same fate. Now, replacement guard Mike Moudy is doubtful with a shoulder injury. That’s four starters at three positions, if you’re counting. Cotton might try to come back, but the fact remains that Nebraska will field a patchwork group, led by Cole Pensick, the center who may have to play guard, tackle-turned-guard Andrew Rodriguez and tackle Brent Qvale, who has flipped from the right to left side.
Special teams and turnovers: Michigan State has developed into an efficient offensive team since its September loss to Notre Dame. The Spartans rank second in the Big Ten in turnover margin. They execute well on special teams. Nebraska, meanwhile, has fallen into old habits over the past four games after posting a positive turnover margin in the season’s first five games. It’s minus-8 since Oct. 12. That won’t be good enough against the Spartans. The Huskers must also find a way to at least break even in the punting game.