World-Herald staff writer Sam McKewon breaks down the Michigan State-Nebraska game, matchup by matchup. * * *
Key matchup: The Spartans' defense — fast, physical, confident — will come after Taylor Martinez with five, six and even seven-man pressures. And Martinez wants the challenge. He likes teams that blitz him. Oklahoma State tried in 2010, Fresno State tried in 2011 and Northwestern tried in 2012. None of them had much success. But Michigan State's defense is a different animal.
NU rush offense vs. MSU rush defense: The Spartans are giving up 91 rushing yards per game this year, and only Ohio State — with QB Braxton Miller — gained more than 200. Nebraska counters with a fast-paced, spread running game that eventually wore down Michigan's talented front seven. NU isn't going to overpower MSU consistently, but its speed gives it a chance to pop a big play or two. Edge: Michigan State
NU pass offense vs. MSU pass defense: Martinez is the Big Ten's most efficient passer thanks to just a handful of drops by his talented receivers. He's become more adept at throwing intermediate routes and converting third-down passes with quick, effective reads. The Spartans only have six interceptions, but they keep plays in front of them. Look for NU to learn a little from how Indiana's spread offense threw for 282 yards. Edge: Even
MSU run offense vs. NU run defense: The Spartans have one of the league's best running backs in Le'Veon Bell (1,061 yards) but their running game is ranked last in the Big Ten. Nebraska's run defense has been hot and cold until the last two weeks, when it slowed down Northwestern and Michigan's more effective units. The Huskers like this matchup plenty. Edge: Nebraska
MSU pass offense vs. NU pass offense: Nebraska dominated this matchup last year in Lincoln against a future NFL quarterback (Kirk Cousins) and two NFL wide receivers. All the Spartans have left is tight end Dion Sims, who's been banged up. Quarterback Andrew Maxwell tries hard and has a good arm, but the chemistry with his receivers is still lacking. The Huskers' pass defense is one of the nation's best, holding opposing quarterbacks to a 47.5 percent completion rate. Edge: Nebraska
Special teams: Nebraska's return and coverage units have a boom-or-bust property to them, but they handled themselves OK last week. Kicker Brett Maher won Big Ten special teams player of the week for hitting three field goals and performing some nifty rugby punts. MSU lacks a dynamic kick or punt return game, but punter Mike Sadler and kicker Dan Conroy are having decent seasons. Edge: Even
Intangibles: For better or worse, the Spartans know their identity now and will play to it, hoping to pull out a late fourth-quarter win. MSU has one less takeaway than Nebraska's defense, but 10 fewer giveaways. The Huskers have to play on the road, carrying the knowledge that they alone control the destiny of the Legends Division. NU traditionally plays poorly with such prosperity. Edge: Michigan State
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Nebraska will win if ...: The defense plays as it expects it will and the offense doesn't melt down in the second half like it did at Ohio State and UCLA.
Michigan State will win if ...: The tortoise stays steady while the Husker hare runs off course with multiple turnovers and big-game jitters.
Our take: Michigan State parties like it's 1973, with a plodding offense and an angry, old-school defense. Nebraska's new-school offense and study-intensive defense are rooted in the 2000s. So who takes it? The Huskers have a few more dynamic athletes and a kicker who can hit the 50-yarder in a pinch. It's hard to see the Spartans sustaining three 70-yard drives against NU's defense, especially after they weren't able to do it in 2011. Meanwhile, NU's wide receivers make the difference with a few big catches.
Prediction: Nebraska 17, Michigan State 12
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