LINCOLN — Nebraska's players aren't trying to downplay the significance of Saturday's showdown with Michigan State, the division leader that's fresh off a bye week and hungry for revenge.
Lose to the Spartans and NU's eliminated from contention for a spot in the conference title game.
So the Huskers can't ignore the hype and excitement that will inevitably build among the fans and even within the Nebraska locker room as they inch closer to a matchup against arguably the most talented opponent left on their schedule.
Michigan State has won all five of its league games by double-digits (and by an average of 20 points), clearly establishing itself as the favorite to win the Legends Division. The Spartans have climbed to 14th in the AP poll, generating some national buzz after pounding Michigan two weeks ago. And now they're strutting into Nebraska's house, as confident as they've been all year.
“This is a big game,” NU middle linebacker Michael Rose said. “There's no point of saying this is another game. We want to control our own destiny, and really, if we lose this game, we have no control over it at all.”
A win over Michigan State (8-1, 5-0 Big Ten) doesn't secure Nebraska's bid to Indianapolis' title game. The Huskers (7-2, 4-1 Big Ten) still travel to Penn State Nov. 23 and host Iowa for the finale. But they know what the penalty is for losing Saturday.
“We have to beat them to move on to what we want to do,” junior I-back Ameer Abdullah said. “We're going to prepare that way.”
It started with weight lifting Sunday. Then film study and practice. What NU's players accomplish in Tuesday's practice could determine how the game will unfold Saturday.
Said Abdullah: “We have to go to the drawing board. Be hard on yourself in film. You have to work to be the best throughout the week. You've got to really earn it.”
Because Michigan State will be ready.
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In the postgame comments following the Spartans' most lopsided win over rival Michigan since the '60s, the team leaders made sure to mention Saturday's trip to Nebraska. MSU has lost both its games to the Huskers since NU joined the league.
The celebration had barely concluded two weeks ago when senior receiver Bennie Fowler said he and his teammates “still have unfinished business” with NU. “We still owe them something because we haven't beat them,” Fowler said after that Michigan win.
And the Spartans have had an extra week to prepare, unlike the last few years.
Two seasons ago, Michigan State had to face Ohio State, Michigan and Wisconsin prior to traveling to Memorial Stadium, where MSU was routed by the Huskers 24-3. Last season the Spartans absorbed a double-overtime loss to Iowa and a two-point defeat at Michigan, then won in overtime at Wisconsin before hosting Nebraska. MSU blew a 10-point lead in the fourth quarter.
“We've got a big challenge this week,” NU senior offensive tackle Brent Qvale said. “We need to keep going a week at a time, and just keep focusing on what our end goal is.”
And that's a Big Ten title.
But it will be important that the Husker don't start thinking too far ahead, Abdullah said. There's plenty to play for Saturday — and enjoying the moment is human nature — but the season doesn't end there.
“I don't like to hype up a situation more than what it is or downgrade more than what it is,” he said. “Every game, you should have some kind of motivation going into the game, no matter who you're playing, no matter what the circumstance is. Obviously this is a big game, with the division (race), and we still have two games after that. You can't look at this like, 'Oh, this is make or break,' and overthink anything.”
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Video: Nebraska coach Bo Pelini
Video: Nebraska offensive lineman Brent Qvale
Video: Nebraska defensive back Ciante Evans
Video: Nebraska quarterback Tommy Armstrong
Video: Nebraska running back Ameer Abdullah