Huskers host the Spartans looking for the first signature win of the Scott Frost era
The Nebraska Cornhuskers and Michigan State Spartans meet at a time when both are playing for momentum. The former looks to continue a hot streak of offensive success that may help them win out. The latter is bowl eligible but wants to cement that status, get a better pairing in December and potentially find a quarterback of the future.
Nebraska is on an offensive tear, putting up 450 yards or more in seven straight games for the first time ever. Michigan State has had an up-and-down season, never winning more than two games in a row and dropping all games against ranked opponents except for a 21-17 victory over Penn State in Happy Valley.
The series has been extremely spirited despite the Huskers’ 8-2 overall advantage. The last time these two teams met, Nebraska rallied with a 19-point fourth quarter capped by a controversial 30-yard touchdown pass with 17 seconds remaining. That gave the Big Red a 39-38 win over the then-No. 6 Spartans.
Mark Dantonio is in his 12th season as Michigan State’s head man with a 106-49 overall record and is credited with six double-digit win seasons and three conference titles during that span.
Which squad is in a better position to claim victory? Let’s analyze the tale of the tape.
Michigan State at Nebraska
Kickoff: Saturday, Nov. 17 at 12 p.m. ET
Spread: Michigan State -1.5
Three Things to Watch
1. Nebraska’s running game vs. Michigan State’s defense
Despite their struggles in several areas this season, one thing the Spartans have been able to do well is plugging the opposition’s running lanes. In fact, they’re the best in the nation at that. The only team to score more than one rushing touchdown against Michigan State all year was Utah State in the first game of the season. However, the Aggies were held to all of 25 yards on 25 carries with three scoring runs covering four total yards.
The Spartans were able to hold arch-rival Michigan to 183 yards on 53 carries and stymied Ohio State as the Buckeyes attempted 45 rushes but managed only 120 yards. Penn State did manage 205 yards on 32 attempts against MSU, and like that contest, this will be a road game for the Spartans.
Devine Ozigbo’s resurgence at running back has been a welcomed one for a Nebraska offense firing on all cylinders. When running mate Maurice Washington gets space, he’s extremely dangerous. However, the latter is playing at a weight far below the ideal in the rugged Big Ten, so how much punishment he’ll be able to withstand is a major question mark.
2. Michigan State’s offense
Who leads the Spartans onto the field this Saturday is a mystery as of this writing. Will it be Brian Lewerke, whose nagging arm injury was obvious this past Saturday versus Ohio State, or redshirt freshman Rocky Lombardi? The latter replaced Lewerke after the starter was unable to find any rhythm versus the Buckeyes but was eventually yanked in favor of Lewerke later in the contest.
The Spartans aren’t going to win the Big Ten East, and even if they lose to Nebraska, they’ll likely notch a win next week versus Rutgers. Keep in mind that they’re already bowl eligible, so they get extra practice before their season is over. The logical thing to do seems to be to give Lombardi the nod and get him as much experience as possible while Lewerke heals up. Then again, Dantonio went with a very illogical plan against Ohio State, and it cost his team dearly.
3. Michigan State’s tempo
Regardless of who starts at quarterback, the Spartans’ goal should be straight out of Wisconsin’s playbook. To win, they must dominate the time of possession and keep Nebraska’s quick-strike offense off the field as much as possible with long, sustained drives. While Michigan State has an absolutely putrid running game, one that ranks 117th in the nation, Nebraska’s rush defense sits at 90th, so the opportunity is there to make just enough hay on the ground to keep the chains moving.
This would also take pressure off of the Spartans quarterback in the passing game. However, this is a gamble. Michigan State absolutely has to turn these hypothetical long drives into touchdowns rather than settle for three points after marching down the field.
This should be a very entertaining game that’s under the national radar. You’ve got strength versus strength in Nebraska’s offense versus Michigan State’s defense. The biggest X-factor: whether or not the Spartans offense can move the ball effectively against the Blackshirts. The Nebraska defense’s most recent performances suggest Michigan State should have at least some success despite its struggles moving the football.
The Huskers have to jump out to an early lead and are arguably one of the best teams in the country at doing so. Even if the Spartans are trailing by seven points or so going into the half, they’ll still be in the thick of it. Nebraska has an unfortunate habit of giving momentum back to the opponent in the second half, and that’s where Michigan State can pounce with proper adjustments.
However, in the end, Scott Frost is a better offensive play caller than anyone on the Spartans staff. He has the necessary speed and efficiency on his side to take advantage of the occasional Michigan State misstep and should claim yet another win on the Huskers’ Senior Day.
Prediction: Nebraska 27, Michigan State 20
— Written by Brandon Cavanaugh, FWAA member and part of the Athlon Contributor Network. Be sure to follow him on Twitter (@eightlaces).