Game Day: Nebraska vs. Michigan State

Laying the foundation

The turnaround of Nebraska football is nowhere near complete, but the 19 Husker seniors who will be honored before Saturday's game believe they’ve set the culture that can take the program forward.

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2-Minute Drill by Sam McKewon

Nebraska rush offense vs. Michigan State rush defense

The Huskers won’t face a tougher run defense this season. Michigan State’s defensive line is dominant, winning matchup after matchup against opposing offensive lines. The Spartans play with great technique and leverage, gumming up holes while penetrating into the backfield. Their excellence will make running between the tackles challenging. Nebraska can, however, make hay getting quarterback Adrian Martinez outside the hash marks against MSU defensive backs, who aren’t as elite as MSU’s defensive linemen. Nebraska coach Scott Frost and offensive coordinator Troy Walters find creative ways of designing run plays that pit Martinez, Devine Ozigbo and Maurice Washington against one or two defenders in space. Nebraska can win out there even if the power run game is tough sledding.

Nebraska pass offense vs. Michigan State pass defense

If Nebraska can’t run, it’ll be harder to hit the play-action passes up the seam to tight ends or slot receiver JD Spielman — questionable for Saturday — that have been so valuable over the last six weeks. But the bulk of NU’s passing game should be available, and Michigan State’s secondary has been more vulnerable than its front seven. NU is good at spreading out a defense and then stretching it with vertical routes that either require excellent man coverage or safeties who don’t get fooled. Nebraska has fooled a lot of safeties in the last six weeks. Spielman and Stanley Morgan — both poised to break school records — have been the beneficiaries. NU’s quick passing game, which can include Ozigbo and Washington, is equally potent. MSU’s pass rush — usually a four-man deal with the occasional exotic pressure — is among the best in the Big Ten thanks to defensive end Kenny Willekes, a former walk-on who has 8.5 sacks and can put any Big Ten tackle on skates with his rip moves.

Michigan State rush offense vs. Nebraska rush defense

Weakness vs. weakness. Nebraska’s run defense, decent early in the season, has become a liability when the opponent commits to the run. Whether it's a pro-style run game or a zone-read scheme, the Huskers have struggled with run fits, tackling and physicality in the trenches, which is why NU allows 5.01 yards per carry and 2.7 rushing touchdowns per game. MSU’s run game, though, is a mess. The Spartans do have a zone-read, quarterback-run component in the offense, but starting quarterback Brian Lewerke is banged up and backup Rocky Lombardi had some struggles in MSU’s 26-6 loss to Ohio State. The downhill run game — featuring 6-foot, 230-pound Connor Heyward — usually doesn’t get untracked and the jet sweep/end around portion of the playbook is hit-and-miss. Nebraska needs to win here.

Michigan State pass offense vs. Nebraska pass defense

MSU’s best receiver, the giant Felton Davis, tore his Achilles tendon in October and is out for the season. The No. 2 receiver, Cody White, is equally big and returned from a broken hand with an eight-catch, 115-yard effort against Ohio State. Who will be throwing White the ball? Look for coach Mark Dantonio to take the decision between Lewerke and Lombardi up to game day. Neither has been particularly accurate this season — Lombardi is below 50 percent — and Nebraska’s pass defense has steadily improved in recent weeks. Dicaprio Bootle and Lamar Jackson are cemented as NU’s top two corners, and the Huskers’ rotation of four guys at safety seems OK.

Special teams

Because it’s Nebraska, and because NU hasn’t strung together two weeks of good special teams, the slight nod goes to Michigan State thanks to kicker Matt Coghlin, who has made 14 of 16 field goals this season. But NU deserves some credit for finding bona fide special teams stars in Jacob Weinmaster and Jeremiah Stovall.

Intangibles

Healthy quarterback for the win. Nebraska’s seniors have lined up behind the freshman Martinez, who has taken the league by storm and might win a few All-Big Ten honors. It’s senior day for the Huskers, too, and since they’re very unlikely to make a bowl game, the final two weeks represent their bowl. As for Michigan State — it’d love to shut down NU’s offense.

Key matchup: Scott Frost vs. Mark Dantonio

Frost is Mr. Offense. Dantonio is Mr. Defense. Their teams represent those identities well. Expect Dantonio and his defensive staff to take an extra dose of interest in attacking NU’s spread offense, and Frost, well aware Nebraska can beat up bad defenses, wants to take a bite out of a really good one. If the Huskers really intend to make the Big Ten adapt to them, they’ll win games like this.

Our take

Surprise, surprise. The “finesse” spread team is healthier than the rock-em-sock-em power football team. That’s one particular reason why Nebraska has a great chance to win Saturday. MSU is banged up, especially at quarterback and certain spots on offense, and it has greatly diminished an offense that already had to string together 10 plays to score touchdowns. Nebraska’s offense is hitting on all cylinders, so even if Michigan State’s defense knocks out a few gears — and it probably will — NU still has Martinez, Morgan, Spielman and Ozigbo. Those four pack a punch in any stadium, but at home, on senior day, it’s enough to win and continue the momentum for, oh yes, the Black Friday rivalry.

Our prediction: NEBRASKA 27, MICHIGAN STATE 21

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