With Nebraska’s 23-9 victory over Michigan last Saturday, the race to win the Big Ten Legends’ Division title is still a wide-open battle. The Cornhuskers own a slight lead in the division but a loss to Michigan State would bring Michigan back into the picture. The Spartans are 2-3 in Big Ten play, so they need some help to reclaim the top spot. However, if Michigan State can beat Nebraska, it should be favored to knock off Northwestern and Minnesota in its last two games.
These two teams have met only six times, but Nebraska has a commanding 6-0 lead in the series. The Cornhuskers won last season’s meeting 24-3 and claimed a 17-3 victory over the Spartans in the 2003 Alamo Bowl. This will only be the second meeting between Nebraska and Michigan State as Big Ten foes.
Storylines to Watch in Nebraska vs. Michigan State
Can Nebraska stop Le’Veon Bell?
Stopping the run has been the biggest problem for Nebraska’s defense this season. The Cornhuskers rank 82nd nationally against the run but that stat is slightly skewed by allowing 344 yards to UCLA and 371 yards to Ohio State. Against traditional running teams, Nebraska has fared much better in defending the run. The Cornhuskers held Wisconsin to 56 yards and Michigan to 95. This unit will face another tough test on Saturday, as Michigan State running back Le’Veon Bell ranks 15th nationally with an average of 117.9 rushing yards per game. The junior has been held under 100 yards in the last two games but rushed for 210 yards and two touchdowns in the season opener against Boise State. Considering Michigan State has struggled to establish a consistent passing attack this year, expect Nebraska to load the box and try to takeaway Bell from the gameplan.
Taylor Martinez vs. Michigan State’s secondary
The matchup between Nebraska’s receiving corps and Michigan State’s secondary will be one of the most intriguing battles to watch in the Big Ten this Saturday. The Cornhuskers own the conference’s top receiving corps but will be facing a tough Michigan State secondary. Johnny Adams and Darqueze Dennard are two of the best cornerbacks in the Big Ten, but the Spartans could be without backup safeties RJ Williamson and Jairus Jones due to injury. Adding another element to this battle will be what happens in the trenches. Michigan State has surprisingly struggled to generate a pass this year, averaging just 1.2 sacks a game. The Cornhuskers are allowing two sacks per contest, which figures to be tested by ends William Gholston and Marcus Rush.
No Rex Burkhead?
Nebraska’s rushing attack has been without the services of Rex Burkhead for nearly all of the last two games and most of the season. The senior aggravated a knee injury against Northwestern and did not play against Michigan. Burkhead’s status for Saturday’s game is uncertain, but the Cornhuskers are in good shape if he is unable to play. Ameer Abdullah has thrived with more opportunities, rushing for 100 yards in back-to-back weeks and totaling 716 yards and eight touchdowns on the season. Abdullah won’t have much running room available, especially considering Michigan State ranks seventh nationally against the run. Even if Burkhead can play, expect Abdullah to see the majority of carries, with quarterback Taylor Martinez also expected to have around 15 rushing attempts as well.
Andrew Maxwell…ready to emerge?
Was last week’s game a sign of things to come from Michigan State quarterback Andrew Maxwell? The junior has struggled in his first season as a starter, throwing for 2,015 yards, nine touchdowns and completing just 55.9 percent of his throws. However, Maxwell led the offense on a game-tying drive in the fourth quarter and threw a 12-yard touchdown toss to Bennie Fowler to win in overtime. Nebraska has done a good job against the pass this season, allowing just 160.1 yards per game. If the Spartans want to get back into the Big Ten title picture, Maxwell has to pickup where he left off against Wisconsin and continue to build on that the rest of the year.
While Nebraska-Michigan State may not register on the national radar like Alabama-LSU or USC-Oregon, this game should play a key role in deciding the Big Ten Legends’ Division. Michigan State has fought its way back into the race after beating Wisconsin last week, but the Spartans still have a lot of ground to make up. If the Cornhuskers can beat Michigan State, it’s hard to see a loss the rest of the way with Penn State, Minnesota and Iowa the remaining opponents. Expect this game to be decided on whichever team can establish its strength – Michigan State’s defense or Nebraska’s offense. Although the Spartans found some life on offense at the end of last week’s game, the Cornhuskers escape East Lansing with a victory.
Final Prediction: Nebraska 24-20
by Steven Lassan
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