By Steven Lassan (@AthlonSteven on Twitter)
The Big Ten Legends Division has to be one of the most competitive in college football. Michigan State sits atop the division with a 3-0 record in conference play, with Michigan, Nebraska and Iowa tied at 2-1.
Saturday’s game between Michigan State and Nebraska is expected to go a long way in determining the division champ. The Spartans are riding a four-game winning streak, which includes big victories over Ohio State, Michigan and Wisconsin. Last week’s win over the Badgers provided one of the best endings to a game this season. However, after an emotional win, there’s usually room for a letdown.
Nebraska began the year as the favorite to win the Big Ten title, but has not performed up to expectations. The Cornhuskers were demolished 48-17 at Wisconsin on Oct. 1 and needed a furious second-half rally to knock off Ohio State on Oct. 8. Although there’s a month of games to be played, a loss by Nebraska would significantly damage its hopes of playing in the first Big Ten title game.
These two teams have matched up only five times, with Nebraska winning every game. The last meeting occurred in the 2003 Alamo Bowl, with the Cornhuskers taking a 17-3 victory.
When Nebraska Has the Ball
Much of Nebraska’s success on offense this season has been on the ground. Running back Rex Burkhead has rushed for 752 yards and 10 scores this season, including 119 in the 34-27 win over Ohio State.
Although Burkhead has been one of the Big Ten’s top running backs this season, he has a lot of help from quarterback Taylor Martinez. The sophomore is just behind Burkhead in rushing yards, posting 636 yards on 110 attempts.
Although Martinez is one of the nation’s top rushing quarterbacks, his passing ability is still a work in progress. Through seven games, the sophomore is completing only 55 percent of his passes and has tossed six interceptions.
One positive for Nebraska’s passing game has been the emergence of young receivers Kenny Bell, Jamal Turner and Quincy Enunwa. Turner leads the team with 15 receptions, while Enunwa is averaging 16.6 yards per catch.
Moving the ball on Michigan State’s defense has been no easy task this year. The Spartans lead the Big Ten in rush, total and pass defense. Also, they have generated 24 sacks and will get defensive end William Gholston back in the mix, after serving a one-game suspension
If Nebraska is to win this game, Martinez has to be able to stretch the field with the passing attack. The Cornhuskers won’t need 300 passing yards from the sophomore, but they need to keep Michigan State’s defense off balance. The Spartans will likely load the box and try to keep Burkhead from getting on track.
When Michigan State Has the Ball
There’s no question the Spartans will attempt to bring more balance than Nebraska to their offense. Michigan State likes to establish its rushing attack and use that to setup the pass.
Running backs Le’Veon Bell and Edwin Baker have combined for 808 yards and eight rushing scores this season. The offensive line was hit by injuries early in the year, but led the way for the Spartans to post 213 rushing yards against Michigan and 109 against Wisconsin.
Senior quarterback Kirk Cousins is having a solid season, completing 66.7 percent of his throws, 11 touchdowns and 1,607 yards. The senior has not thrown an interception in the last two games, and his experience winning on the road the last few years is going to come in handy in Lincoln.
Helping Cousins’ cause is one of the best groups of receivers in the Big Ten. Seniors Keshawn Martin, B.J. Cunningham and Keith Nichol combine to form a solid trio, while tight ends Dion Sims and Brian Linthicum can attack the middle of the field. Nebraska’s secondary ranks 27th nationally in pass defense, and this group has allowed only one opponent to throw for more than 200 yards in the last three games. Senior Alfonzo Dennard was injured early in the year, but is rounding back to form, and the defense has received a boost from the play of sophomore Stanley Jean-Baptiste at the other corner spot.
Nebraska’s defense was expected to be the best in the Big Ten, but it hasn’t lived up to preseason accolades. The Cornhuskers rank 70th against the run and are allowing 25.3 points a game. The defensive line suffered a big blow when tackle Jared Crick tore a pectoral muscle in the win over Ohio State and was lost for the remainder of the season.
If the Spartans can keep Nebraska’s defense off balance, they should have the inside track to win this game. Even if Bell and Baker won’t get to 100 yards each, it’s important to get three or four yards a carry, allowing Cousins to test the Cornhusker secondary off play-action passes.
The Cornhuskers own a slight edge on special teams. Kicker Brett Maher has connected on 13 of 16 field goals, including 4 of 7 from beyond 50 yards. Ameer Abdullah has been a dynamic returner for Nebraska this season, averaging 10.2 yards on punt returns and 31.9 on kick returns.
Keshawn Martin is capable of scoring every time he touches the ball on special teams for Michigan State, averaging 7.8 yards on 10 punt returns. Kicker Dan Conroy has connected on 6 of 9 field goals this year, including 2 of 3 from 50 yards or more.
Can Michigan State follow up with the same momentum and energy it had last week? After the crazy finish against Wisconsin, it wouldn’t be surprising if the Spartans got off to a slow start.
Although it has only one loss, Nebraska’s back is against the wall. A loss to Michigan State would be damaging for its Big Ten title hopes. With a win over the Cornhuskers, the Spartans would be in full control of the Legends Division.
Winning in Lincoln is never easy, but the Spartans are the better team. Don’t be surprised if this is a low-scoring game, but Michigan State’s defense will prevent Burkhead and Martinez from finding too much room, giving the Spartans another big win in conference play.
Michigan State 24, Nebraska 20