With all the preseason attention directed towards Ohio State and Michigan State during the summer months, it’s the Nebraska Cornhuskers who stand as the Big Ten’s only unbeaten as the sixth weekend of the college football season approaches. Standing in the way of the Huskers moving to 6-0 is a Michigan State team that is looking to make a statement in their second shot at a ranked opponent.
The Spartans whiffed on their first chance, letting the game slip away against Oregon last month when they were outscored 28-3 in the second half at Autzen Stadium. Now they’ll be the home team, hosting a ranked opponent, in a game where both squads are looking to make statements and get the edge in an open Big Ten race.
Both schools lead the Big Ten in scoring with the Spartans having a slight edge at 50.3 points per game to Nebraska’s 45.4. Obviously the pressure is on the defenses in this one and that may actually throw the advantage Nebraska’s way.
How The Huskers Can Win
Nebraska can win this game by running the ball. The Huskers lead the Big Ten in total rushing yards (354.8 per game) and have scored sixteen touchdowns on the ground. The Husker offense works best when they are running the ball and this is proven by them having the nation’s third-ranked ground attack.
It goes without saying that this will be the focal point of the Michigan State defense.
“They’re high-powered, they have a back that’s going to make you miss and a quarterback with a lot of confidence who’s ready to come out and prove himself,” MSU defensive end Shilique Calhoun said earlier in the week. “The biggest thing is their offensive line will really knock you off the ball if you don’t use your hands and be as aggressive as they are.”
Senior running back Ameer Abdullah is grinding at a pace of 7.3 yards per carry and has scored half of Nebraska’s rushing touchdowns. Abdullah was an early mention for the Heisman candidacy, and he’s certainly kept his hat in the ring.
“It’s his downhill running ability,” Calhoun added. “He takes a different approach to it. As soon as the ball is in his hands, he does a great job of getting north and south. The biggest thing is making sure he goes east and west – don’t allow him to get through a gap and make you miss, bring your hips when you come to tackle and get him down.
Michigan State is second in the conference against the run which just adds to the intrigue of this game. The Spartans are holding opponents to well below Abdullah’s average at a rate of just 2.8 yards per carry and 78.3 total yards per game.
How The Spartans Can Win
Michigan State will have the home field advantage and all they have to do is keep pace with what they usually do on offense. Obviously that’s easier said than done but having the nation’s third-ranked scoring offense at their disposal, and the home fans behind them, is a good start.
The Spartans proudly match Nebraska’s sixteen rushing scores but their offense is centered around junior quarterback Connor Cook, who is averaging 10.73 yards per attempt and completing passes at a rate of nearly 70%.
“He is actually a lot more athletic than people would give him credit for,” Nebraska defensive coordinator John Papuchis said this week. “What he does a great job of is buying time for himself in the pocket. His mobility doesn’t always translate to rushing yards. But what he is able to do is give ground, avoid pass rush and feel the pocket and step up in it. That he does a really good job of.”
Of course no quarterback ever carries the load on his own and Cook has looked towards senior receiver Tony Lippett as his top target. Lippett has caught 22 passes this season, more than twice as many as anyone else, for an average of 19.1 yards per catch and six scores.
Papuchis noted that his defense is going to have to get physical with the MSU receivers in order to limit their effectiveness.
“They are big guys, really the same guys we have been playing for a couple years now. Our biggest thing is we have to get our hands on them. If we are physical with them and match their physicality then I think we have a chance. If we allow them to run free down the field and box us out all of the time, then we are going to have some issues,” Papuchis said. ”We will have to be good in our technique we will have to execute our fundamentals and we will have a chance to be good.”
Kickoff: 8:00 PM ET
Location: East Lansing, Michigan
Line: MSU -7
*Section Photo credit to Nati Harnik, Associated Press; Featured Photo (above) credit to Mike Carter, USA TODAY Sports