The Big Ten Legends Division title could be decided on Saturday, as Michigan State travels to Lincoln to play Nebraska.
The Cornhuskers have experienced an up and down 2013 season, starting with a 41-21 loss to UCLA. Nebraska rebounded with three consecutive victories but lost at Minnesota 34-23, which prompted more speculation about the future of coach Bo Pelini.
However, Pelini's team has rallied with back-to-back wins, including a 17-13 victory at Michigan last Saturday.
While Nebraska has been on a roller-coaster ride in 2013, Michigan State has flown under the radar for much of the season. The Spartans are 8-1, with the only defeat coming at Notre Dame.
Michigan State has dominated its last three opponents (Purdue, Illinois and Michigan) by a combined score of 85-9.
Nebraska and Michigan State have met seven times, with the Cornhuskers winning every matchup. These two teams have played only twice as Big Ten foes, with last year’s meeting decided by four points.
Michigan State at Nebraska
Kickoff: Saturday, 3:30 ET
TV Channel: ABC
Spread: Michigan State -6.5
Three Things to Watch
Michigan State’s defensive line vs. Nebraska’s offensive line
Led by sophomore end Shilique Calhoun, Michigan State’s defensive line has been one of the best in the nation. The Spartans are holding opponents to just 227.4 yards per game in Big Ten contests and have allowed only six touchdowns in conference play. Each unit of the defense can be considered a strength, and the line is led by Calhoun and Marcus Rush at end, while Damon Knox and Micajah Reynolds help anchor the interior. Nebraska’s offensive line ranked as one of the best in the Big Ten this preseason, but the Cornhuskers lost guard Spencer Long early in the year due to injury. Mike Moudy has stepped into the lineup in place of Long, but there’s even more questions about the line in Week 12 due to injuries. Tackle Jeremiah Sirles is unlikely to play due to a sprained MCL, which means Zach Sterup is expected to start on the right side. Nebraska has allowed 10 of its 12 sacks in conference play, and Northwestern and Michigan held the Cornhuskers below four yards per carry. With Nebraska’s injuries and Michigan State’s pass rush (25 sacks in nine games), this is shaping up to be a mismatch in the trenches in favor of the Spartans.
Nebraska’s secondary vs. Michigan State QB Connor Cook
Michigan State seems to have found its quarterback in sophomore Connor Cook. After the Spartans failed to throw a touchdown pass in their first two games, Cook has tossed 13 over the last seven games. Although Cook has provided a spark for the passing attack, Nebraska will be the toughest secondary he has faced in 2013. The Cornhuskers have allowed just three passing touchdowns in Big Ten play, and opponents are completing just 48.5 percent of their passes. Senior cornerbacks Ciante Evans and Stanley Jean-Baptiste have combined to start 44 games in their careers, while safety Corey Cooper ranks second on the team with 60 tackles. Michigan State does not have a receiver over 30 catches, but three players have at least 24. The Spartans prefer to lean on their ground attack, so unless they get behind, Cook won’t throw 40 times on Saturday. This matchup favors the Cornhuskers, especially if end Randy Gregory continues to wreck havoc on opposing offensive lines. The junior has 7.5 sacks and 13 tackles for a loss this season, which figures to test a Michigan State offensive line that has allowed only four sacks in Big Ten play.
Nebraska QB Tommy Armstrong Jr.
With Taylor Martinez sidelined indefinitely, Armstrong Jr. and Ron Kellogg III will get the nod at quarterback for Nebraska. Armstrong Jr. – a redshirt freshman – has yet to throw for over 200 yards in a game this season but was steady in the Cornhuskers’ 17-13 win over Michigan last week. Michigan State’s defense has intercepted 10 passes this season, which is a concern for the Nebraska coaching staff after Armstrong threw three against Northwestern. The Cornhuskers can’t rely on Armstrong to win this game on his arm, but the freshman’s mobility will be especially valuable when Michigan State’s pass rush collapses the pocket. Considering Nebraska’s defense has played well in its last two games, Armstrong has to limit his mistakes and keep his team in this game until the fourth quarter.
Key Player: Ameer Abdullah, RB, Nebraska
With an inexperienced quarterback (Tommy Armstrong) starting against one of the Big Ten’s best defense, Nebraska’s offensive gameplan shouldn’t be too aggressive. Armstrong needs some early throws to get into the flow of the game, but the Cornhuskers have to find ways to get Abdullah involved. The junior leads the Big Ten with 149.6 yards per game in conference play and needs another 100-yard effort for Nebraska to earn the victory.
This series has been dominated by Nebraska, but Michigan State is the better team in 2013. Points could be at a premium, and in any close game, turnovers and special teams could play a huge role in the outcome. Michigan State’s defense has allowed only one opponent to score more than 20 points this season (Indiana), and coordinator Pat Narduzzi will throw several different looks at Armstrong. The Cornhuskers won’t ask Armstrong to win the game, but he will have to hit on a few throws early on to keep the Spartans from stacking the box against Abdullah. Nebraska gets this game to the fourth quarter, but the Spartans find just enough offense to win.
Prediction: Michigan State 27, Nebraska 20