Game Day: Nebraska vs. Michigan State

Changing the narrative

Nebraska coach Mike Riley would prefer not to discuss the potential narrative-altering impact that an upset win over an undefeated top 10 team could have on a disappointing debut season. To Riley, any assertion that a single game has added value over another jeopardizes the workmanlike approach he’d like his program to adopt.

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2-Minute Drill by Rich Kaipust

Nebraska rush offense vs. Michigan State rush defense

Not much momentum on the side of the Huskers, who have managed just 82 and 77 rushing yards in their last two games. Getting back the quarterback run threat with Tommy Armstrong might help, but the problems seem to be running a little deeper. The Spartans won’t cut cooperate much, either, currently holding opponents to 115.5 yards per game and 3.5 per carry. NU will need to win some battles up front, but that’s where Michigan State is strongest.

Nebraska pass offense vs. Michigan State pass defense

There are some things in the Huskers’ favor, with the ability to maybe test two freshman safeties more than some recent MSU foes have done and take advantage of cornerback Darian Hicks likely being out. But Nebraska also is back to being without De’Mornay Pierson-El, and it better find a way to keep Shilique Calhoun and company out of the backfield to give Armstrong time to do something.

Michigan State rush offense vs. Nebraska rush defense

The Huskers have started to yield some ground here after mostly stuffing the run for seven weeks, and Purdue hit them for a surprising 183 rushing yards last Saturday. Michigan State, though, is one of only two Big Ten teams averaging below 4.0 yards per carry, and don’t have a Le’Veon Bell or Jeremy Langford like NU has had to worry about before.

Michigan State pass offense vs. Nebraska pass defense

The No. 124-ranked pass defense in the nation won’t get any kind of break against Michigan State quarterback Connor Cook. The senior has passed for 17 touchdowns with just two interceptions, and his knack for making the throws that matter has helped MSU convert 50 percent of its third downs. Nebraska has held him somewhat in check the last two meetings, with Cook completing just 43.3 percent of his passes (26 of 60) for 427 yards and two TDs.

Special teams

Nebraska kicker Drew Brown has made five straight field goals from 40-plus yards, leads the Big Ten in scoring and ranks second with 26 touchbacks on kickoffs. The Huskers rank second in net punting, too, behind the work of Sam Foltz. Neither team is great in the return game, and NU especially has struggled with running back kickoffs, although it got a 42-yarder last week from Stanley Morgan.

Intangibles

This would appear stacked for Michigan State, with the Spartans coming off a bye week, motivated by their pursuit of a College Football Playoff spot and riding a 12-game road win streak in Big Ten play. The Spartans also have a plus-10 turnover margin and limit their penalties, which happen to be two areas where the Huskers rank closer to the bottom nationally than the top. NU also is staring at a season that has gotten away from it.

Key matchup: Nebraska offensive line vs. Michigan State front four

Nebraska hasn’t consistently been moving anybody around, and now comes Michigan State with Shilique Calhoun (6-5, 250), Joel Heath (6-6, 293), Malik McDowell (6-6, 275) and Lawrence Thomas (6-4, 305). Look for the Huskers to run some misdirection, but NU offensive coordinator Danny Langsdorf said they will have to go right at the Spartans some, too.

Our take

Nebraska might have a chance to get some things done against the MSU defense, but also needs to keep Cook off the field and stop him on third down. It just can’t afford to do anything like it has done the last two years against Sparty, turning it over five times in 2013 and falling behind 27-3 in 2014. Bottom line, though, is that Michigan State is several things that NU is not right now: Clean, confident and consistent.

Our prediction: Michigan State 38, Nebraska 28

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Game notes

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