Michigan State Football: 5 Keys to the Game vs. Nebraska
They'll need plenty of additional help, but the Michigan State Spartans can keep their hopes of playing in a second straight Big Ten Championship Game clinging to life with a win over Nebraska on Saturday.
Remembering the outcome of last season's matchup, the Spartans know it won't be easy—even at home.
One year ago—almost to the day—State traveled to Lincoln, Neb. fresh off a thrilling win over Wisconsin and in control of the Legends Division. When it left, 60 minutes of dominant football had been played—but it was the Cornhuskers who handed out a 24-3 beating on the field at Memorial Stadium.
This year it's Nebraska, 6-2 overall and 3-1 in conference play, who holds the top spot in the Legends Division coming into the game, and the Cornhuskers defense has been heating up in recent weeks. The Spartans, once again coming off an uplifting victory over the Badgers—this time a 16-13 overtime win—know they'll have to step up their game in order to taste victory this time around.
Here are five keys to the game which will be crucial for Michigan State (5-4, 2-3) and its chances for victory in East Lansing this weekend.
Gotta Get Nasty
If the Spartans want revenge, they've simply got to man up and take it.
Nebraska is no Alabama; it can be beat—especially away from Lincoln.
One way to potentially crush the Cornhuskers' Big Ten title hopes and keep its own alive is for State to beat them up in the trenches. Setting the tempo early is a must—on offense and defense.
In last year's loss, the Spartans shied away from the run game after QB Kirk Cousins threw an interception on the first drive. Nebraska then capitalized by responding with a quick touchdown.
Running back Le'Veon Bell rushed for 29 yards on four carries during that opening drive.
Five of the following six drives would end up being three-and-outs. Offensive coordinator Dan Roushar gradually leaned on the passing game more and more, which was exactly what Nebraska wanted.
The Spartans are going to bring it on defense. That much we know. Aside from a first-half slip-up at Indiana, the D has done its part all season.
Offensively, though, Michigan State lacks the playmaking receivers that allowed it to open up the passing game a season ago. Andrew Maxwell is no Cousins, either. If the Spartans are going to set the tempo early, they have to dominate in the trenches and pound the rock when they possess the ball.
Which leads us to the next slide...
Be Relentless with the Run Game
The Spartans' makeshift offensive line isn't the most ideal unit to run behind, but that hasn't stopped Bell from punishing defenders on every carry he gets.
The junior has now piled up 1,061 rushing yards and eight touchdowns on 247 carries in 2012. The 6'2", 244-pound bruiser is fully capable of handling the ball 30-35 times a game, and that should be his expected workload on Saturday.
The O-line isn't great, but it is big. The Spartans have plenty of beef up front, and that beef will have to consistently blow defenders off the ball so Bell can build momentum into the second level. If State doesn't wear down Nebraska's D-line, it'll have plenty of juice to wreak havoc in the pass rush down the road.
Michigan State has a beast in its backfield. That beast needs to be fed. Stopping the run is not the Cornhuskers' strong suit. They were gashed by the Buckeyes for a whopping 371 yards rushing three weeks ago and followed up that shoddy performance by allowing 180 to Northwestern the following week.
Nebraska's defense is not designed to stop a traditional rushing attack like Michigan State's, which is even more reason to let Bell pound away this weekend.
But he can't do everything..
Move the Chains on Third Down
Saturday's win over Wisconsin was somewhat of a breakthrough performance for State's struggling junior signal-caller.
Aside from making the game-winning touchdown throw in overtime, Maxwell converted on several third downs throughout the game. In all, the Spartans were 9 of 17 on third downs against the Badgers. It failed to result in points until late in the fourth quarter and overtime, but the ability to extend drives helped wear down Wisconsin's defense throughout the game.
Maxwell and his receivers are going have to extend drives with timely third-down conversions again this Saturday. Unlike Wisconsin, the Cornhuskers have an extremely dangerous quarterback who will eventually make you pay if you keep handing him the ball.
The majority of State's games this season have been low-scoring affairs, and it's doubtful this one will play out any differently. The Spartans will have to optimize every drive, extending them as long as possible and keeping their defense fresh in the process.
And when the defense is on the field...
Max Bullough and the Front Seven Must Create Turnovers
The real ticket to victory at Spartan Stadium this weekend?
Yes, this is always a key focus. But that's because the importance of creating takeaways in addition to limiting giveaways is inescapable. Especially against a team like Nebraska.
The Cornhuskers have 17 giveaways in their five losses since the start of the 2011 season. That's over three a game, though I'm sure you didn't need me to say it. Martinez's three interceptions proved costly in Nebraska's 63-38 loss to Ohio State. He's put the ball on the ground several times this season as well.
Surprisingly, all five of the dual-threat QB's fumbles have occurred in the pocket while taking a sack.
Spartans team captain and linebacker Max Bullough, a potential Big Ten Player of the Year selection, notched two sacks in addition to nine tackles against Wisconsin. Defensive end William Gholston recorded a sack as well, and together the two will need to lead a fierce pass rush capable of disrupting the Cornhuskers' backfield early and often.
I'm simply stating the obvious, but turnovers are absolutely crucial. Getting to the quarterback, especially Nebraska's signal-caller, is the best way to force them.
Kick History to the Curb
Forget the past.
Not just last season's disappointing loss, but the history between these two altogether. The Spartans are 0-6 all-time against the Cornhuskers, but that need not apply here.
The Spartans are on their turf, with their backs against the wall. A loss this weekend completely eliminates Michigan State from the race to Indianapolis. Hopes of squeaking into a decent bowl game would likely vanish as well, though eligibility could still be had with a win in either of the Spartans' final two games.
Sparty is out for blood. Big Red blood. They need to get out to a good start, bring it in the trenches and force turnovers on defense. If Maxwell can turn last week's late-game heroics into a 60-minute performance, the burden on the defense will be relieved and it can keep Martinez on his toes as a result.
Even if reaching the Big Ten Championship Game is no longer a realistic dream, playing spoiler can be pretty fun, too.