LINCOLN — Nebraska's rookie quarterback isn't looking at Saturday's matchup the way most outsiders see it.
Tommy Armstrong's sixth career start will be against a menacing Michigan State defense, a group that has developed a reputation for attacking, swarming and manhandling opponents. The Spartans' statistical dominance adds to their image as a juggernaut.
But Armstrong won't take the field cautiously wondering before every snap how he's going to avoid a torturous afternoon.
When asked this week about Michigan State's aggressiveness, Armstrong provided a glimpse into his mentality: “First of all,” he said, “if you blitz, obviously, somebody's going to be open.”
In other words, Armstrong will be expecting success Saturday — even as he's glancing past his banged-up offensive line and into the eyes of Spartans inching closer, intent on coming after him.
“Tommy Armstrong is not going to be intimidated,” NU coach Bo Pelini said. “That much I know.”
That said, Armstrong, Pelini and the rest of the Huskers are aware that moving the football against the Spartans will not be easy. “Our guys have a lot of respect for this defense,” Pelini said. “I would anticipate it would make our guys play that much harder and take the challenge.”
That's how the Huskers approached their past two meetings with MSU.
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They wore down the Spartans in Lincoln two years ago, attempting just 13 passes in a 24-3 win. Rex Burkhead had 35 carries, including seven straight during Nebraska's final scoring drive to cap a dominant third quarter.
The game unfolded much differently last year, but the Huskers still did most of their damage on the ground, rushing for more yards (313) than any other MSU opponent in six years. Taylor Martinez had 205 of those, and he threw the game-winning touchdown pass with six seconds left.
“We know what kind of offense we are,” senior receiver Quincy Enunwa said. “We know, when we get going, what we can do. Regardless of the defense we're playing, we're going to have as much confidence as possible.”
They can't make mistakes, though. The NU offense scored on two of its first three possessions and won the Michigan game on its final drive last week, but another drought in between could be costly Saturday.
The Huskers had seven straight scoreless possessions against the Wolverines, managing just 2.6 yards per carry on 17 attempts during that stretch. Senior tackle Brent Qvale said the struggles could often be traced to one blocker's miscue.
“It was kind of one guy here or there that either slipped up on a block or they beat him in one gap,” Qvale said. “Or one guy was too wide on his step, so that pushes the whole line.”
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Little things. But enough to spoil a possession, especially against a Spartans defense that is most deceptive and effective on third-and-long.
“If you make these mistakes against a good defense like Michigan State,” Qvale said, “they're going to hurt you.”
It doesn't help that Nebraska is struggling to stay healthy.
Martinez is out. Another offensive captain, guard Spencer Long, will be on crutches. Senior tackle Jeremiah Sirles could be sidelined, too. Junior guard Mike Moudy, a reserve-turned-starter after Long went down, isn't likely to play. Junior guard Jake Cotton might start, though he'd probably be a bit hobbled. Receiver Jamal Turner is 50-50.
There will be no shortage of aches and bruises Saturday. Michigan State prides itself on physicality, which is one reason the Spartan defense is so highly regarded. MSU ranks first nationally in total defense and third in scoring defense — but its style of play is what stands out most.
The Huskers know firsthand. But say they'll be ready.
“Every time we play Michigan State, it's a fistfight,” junior running back Ameer Abdullah said. “Those guys are tough. Those guys are a great defensive bunch, very sound, very talented.”
Saturday's game should be no different, according to receivers coach Rich Fisher. He's expecting a “heavyweight” bout. That's how it's always been against the Spartans.
“But our kids,” Fisher said, “they live for these kind of games.”
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Video: Nebraska coach Bo Pelini on Thursday after practice: