Nebraska Cornhuskers vs. Michigan State Spartans: Complete Game Preview
Saturday's matchup may as well be called "The Legends Division Championship."
After all, it pretty much is.
Nebraska enters the matchup at 7-2 overall. Michigan State enters at 8-1.
The Spartans are also ranked 16th in the latest BCS standings.
Needless to say, the Huskers have their work cut out for them.
Despite all that is riding on the game, an interesting piece of information is that the Huskers are a perfect 7-0 versus Michigan State. The last time the Spartans visited Lincoln, Neb., Nebraska defeated the team 24-3.
Regardless of the past, Saturday's matchup will decide a lot.
Who will leave victorious with a chance to still travel to the Big Ten Championship?
Where: Memorial Stadium, Lincoln, Neb.
When: Saturday, Nov. 16, at 3:30 p.m. ET
Listen: Husker Sports Network, Sirius Channel 92, XM 107
Betting Line: Michigan State (-6), per Bovada
Nebraska's Keys to Victory
1. Defense Must Match the Spartans'
After the first quarter versus Northwestern, Nebraska's defense has put together seven solid quarters of defensive play.
Against Michigan, the Blackshirts recorded an impressive seven sacks.
However, Michigan State is not Michigan. That's an obvious fact, though.
Regardless, Nebraska's defense will have to match the Spartans defense.
If the Huskers can keep it close throughout the whole game, it will be key. Plus, when Nebraska holds a team to less than 34 points, the Huskers typically win.
The Blackshirts will be a major factor in keeping Nebraska in this game. If they can play to the Spartans' level, the game could easily swing in the Huskers' favor.
If anyone believes that defense wins championships, this game will be the one to prove that.
After all, whichever team's defense holds on harder will likely help win the game.
2. Throw the Ball
Michigan State isn't going to allow much from the running perspective.
This will be frustrating for I-back Ameer Abdullah. However, it's best that the Huskers do not waste too much time trying to make the run game happen.
With talented wide receivers, quarterback Tommy Armstrong should be passing to Quincy Enunwa, Jordan Westerkamp and Kenny Bell when possible.
An added benefit for the Huskers is that Ron Kellogg III can also assist Armstrong. If the redshirt freshman struggles, Kellogg can step in to help get the passing game going.
Michigan State will be ready for whatever quarterback is in the game. However, passing the ball will be a much more effective strategy against the Spartans than running the ball.
Abdullah may be able to get a little going in terms of running, but it will be very limited. Nebraska offensive coordinator Tim Beck will have to be sensitive to this.
Additionally, the offensive line will have to step up and protect. Though injured, the group can accomplish this.
3. Crowd Involvement
Memorial Stadium better be ready to rock on Saturday.
When Michigan State arrives to town, the Huskers fanbase will be a big part in how the Huskers play.
If Nebraska fans can keep Memorial Stadium electric, the momentum could play in the Huskers' favor. Loud stadiums have a tendency of doing that.
With the Spartans offense being less notable than its defense, crowd noise could rattle the team. Plus, it could benefit the Blackshirts.
There is a reason Texas A&M prides itself on "The 12th Man." The Aggie fans are as much a part of the game as anything else.
'The Iron N,' the official student section of Husker Athletics, is trying to make that happen with rally towels. The group is encouraging the fans to bring black towels in an effort to make Memorial Stadium louder than usual.
That's what Memorial Stadium needs to be. If the Huskers want to go to the Big Ten Championship, Saturday's matchup with Michigan State very well could decide it.
So as fans, be loud and be proud.
Michigan State's Keys to Victory
1. Defensive Strength
This is an obvious one for Michigan State. After all, the Spartans currently have one of the best defenses in the country.
Using that defense effectively will be key.
Nebraska quarterback Tommy Armstrong won't be used to the pressure. Find ways to make him uncomfortable, and passes will suddenly become more forced.
Armstrong has shown he is interception-prone, too.
The Huskers also have a pretty weak offensive line. After a series of injuries, this unit will struggle against Michigan State.
Putting the focus up front will wear down Nebraska quickly.
2. Watch the Pass
In conjunction with defensive strength, Michigan State will have to watch the pass.
Since the Spartans rush defense is pretty difficult to get around, Armstrong will likely put the ball in the air.
Wide receiver Quincy Enunwa will also be a challenge to cover. The senior has shown he can make big plays over and over.
Michigan State's secondary will have to be on watch for this. If I-back Ameer Abdullah can't run, expect the ball to be thrown.
Plus, Nebraska offensive coordinator Tim Beck loves to pass the football. There's no reason this shouldn't be a main focus for the Spartans.
3. Get Ahead
The trick for Michigan State is to get ahead and stay ahead.
When Nebraska falls behind, the team tends to fall apart.
There are instances of comeback victories, but assuming a comeback similar to 2012 for Nebraska over Michigan State does not seem likely.
Plus, the Huskers typically are able to win if they can keep an opponent to less than 34 points.
That's why it's crucial for Michigan State to get ahead as much as possible. The Blackshirts will aim to keep the game close.
If Nebraska's defense can accomplish that, it will only make winning more difficult for Michigan State.
The Spartans defense is a powerhouse. Limit Nebraska and get ahead. That's really the key to winning this matchup.
Players to Watch for Nebraska
Tommy Armstrong (rFR., QB)
Think Michigan was the big game for Nebraska quarterback Tommy Armstrong? Think again.
After Huskers head coach Bo Pelini confirmed Taylor Martinez will likely not return this season, it means winning officially falls on Armstrong.
That's a lot of pressure for a redshirt freshman.
However, despite some bumps in the road, Armstrong has shown poise in various situations. There may have been one too many interceptions thrown, but it's a growing process.
Come Saturday, Armstrong will be at home. He will also have an injured offensive line in front of him, but Armstrong has shown he can scramble.
It won't be easy for the young quarterback, but it'll say a lot about his abilities going forward.
Win against Michigan State, and there will be little question as to who the starting quarterback is going forward.
Randy Gregory (Soph., DE)
Most are focused on Michigan State's talented defense for Saturday. One of the biggest reasons is the Spartans' Shilique Calhoun. With 6.5 sacks recorded this season, it's hard not to see why.
However, Nebraska's Randy Gregory is also tied with 6.5 sacks.
Against Michigan alone, Gregory recorded three sacks, which ultimately named him co-Big Ten Defensive Player of the Week.
Gregory will test Michigan State's offense. For as impressive as Calhoun may be for the Spartans, Gregory is that impressive for the Huskers.
Plus, Pelini paid Gregory a high compliment this week.
"I'm not throwing him into [Ndamukong] Suh's category yet, but I think he can have that type of impact on our program down the line," Huskers coach Bo Pelini said during his weekly Monday news conference, as reported by NFL.com.
That's a pretty good reason to keep an eye on the defensive end.
For a full depth chart, click here.
Players to Watch for Michigan State
Shilique Calhoun (Soph., DE)
Right alongside Nebraska's Randy Gregory, Michigan State defensive end Shilique Calhoun is a force to be reckoned with.
At 6'4" and 250 pounds, the sophomore has 6.5 sacks so far this season. He will definitely be a major threat to Nebraska quarterback Tommy Armstrong.
So far this season, Calhoun has 22 total tackles, with 11 tackles for loss, 17 quarterback hurries and a forced fumble.
While the Huskers offensive line has only allowed 12 sacks this season, Calhoun could find ways to get around that. Plus, with injuries ailing the Huskers offensive line, it could set Calhoun up for a big game.
Connor Cook (Soph., QB)
Michigan State quarterback Connor Cook is constantly improving.
In fact, against Michigan, Cook had his best outing to date.
He was 18-of-33 for 252 yards and one touchdown. He only had one interception.
Against Illinois, Cook set a school accuracy record, as reported by the Detroit Free Press. He was 15-of-16 that day in Michigan State's 42-3 victory over the Fighting Illini.
Similar to Nebraska quarterback Tommy Armstrong, Cook has a lot to prove. Interestingly enough, both had standout games against Michigan.
Nebraska's defense will be out to stop the young quarterback on Saturday. It will be another big test for Cook.
How he handles the pressure will say a lot about him and the future of Michigan State's offense.
For a full depth chart, click here.
What Are They Saying?
On Michigan State's defense:
I think they've just got a veteran group. A lot of these guys seem like the same group that played against us two years ago. Not last year; I'm talking about two years ago. They have a lot of experience. (Michigan State Defensive Coordinator) Pat Narduzzi does a really good job. They are well-coached on defense. You can see their guys out there. You see (Max) Bullough. They communicate well. They've been in the system for a long time, so they are pretty advanced. They understand their system and not only what people are trying to do to them. It allows you to do a little bit more the more veteran you are like that. I think that they've progressed. They continue to change and upgrade and keep getting better. They do a nice job.
On Taylor Martinez:
I want to clarify something. He has some nagging injuries but at the end of the day it comes down to his foot. His foot hasn't enabled him to play. I know one thing. There is no one that is more frustrated than Taylor. It's a foot injury that we knew could linger. It really hasn't gotten much better. Obviously I can't look into a crystal ball but it's been tough on the kid. I don't know if the chances are really good. It's not a good injury to have. You just don't know. It's one of those injuries where it's difficult to say when it's going to heal. I feel for the kid. It's a tough thing to happen to you during your senior year.
On if Ameer Abdullah will go to the NFL after this season:
I would be shocked if that were even a thought in his mind right now. If it is, we'll deal with that when the time comes. In my experience, you only go to college once. The NFL is going to be there for Ameer Abdullah. I always believe you are better off staying and playing it out unless you are going to be a top five pick and that doesn't happen to many running backs these days.
(We will) when the situation calls for it.
On Michigan State being the biggest game of the year:
Every week is the biggest game for me. That's about it. Our approach won't change.
On offensive line injuries putting pressure on him:
I put a lot of pressure on myself regardless of the situation. Guys know that they have to be ready. They have been stepping up and couldn't be any happier.
On playing Michigan State:
Every game is big. But this game is big because they lead the division and we need to beat them to move on and do what we want to do.
On Michigan State's defense:
I'm looking forward to it. Every time we play Michigan State it's a fist-fight. Those guys are tough. They are a great defensive bunch. They are very sound and talented. We've gotten the best of them last two years. We need to watch film, find their weaknesses and try to exploit it.
Unless otherwise noted, all quotes are courtesy of Nebraska's weekly press conference, via Huskers.com.
Nebraska head coach Bo Pelini is winning man in the month of November.
Whether that statement still rings true depends on the outcome of Saturday's matchup.
Prior to beating Michigan, not many thought there was much of a matchup between Nebraska and Michigan State. Then the Huskers beat the Wolverines.
The last time Michigan State traveled to Lincoln, Neb., was 2011. Led by Kirk Cousins, the Spartans had a pretty good offense that season.
In fact, Cousins averaged 31 points per game at the time.
Nebraska defeated Michigan State 24-3.
In 2012, Nebraska traveled to Michigan State. At the time, the Spartans also had a pretty solid defense.
That was until quarterback Taylor Martinez ran for 205 of Nebraska's 313 rushing yards. The Huskers came back to win that game 28-24.
What this all means is that despite how good one team is at something, this game really could go either way.
Michigan State's defense will wreak havoc on Nebraska's offense. On the other hand, the Blackshirts look to be ready to do the same to the Spartans.
Fans can expect a close game with Michigan State controlling most of it.
However, Pelini and his ability to win in November will find a way. It'll be toward the end, but the Huskers will pull through.
Prediction: Nebraska 20, Michigan State 17
For complete team coverage and everything Huskers, you can follow Erin on Twitter at @erinsorensen.