LINCOLN, Neb. (AP) – Three down, one to go.
Ninth-ranked Michigan State has made it through a brutal October schedule unscathed so far, and a win over No. 13 Nebraska on Saturday would remove another major obstacle on its path to the first Big Ten championship game.
The Spartans (6-1, 3-0) have defeated Ohio State, Michigan and Wisconsin this month. If they knock off the Cornhuskers (6-1, 2-1), it would mark the first time Michigan State has taken down a ranked opponent in three straight games.
The question is how the Spartans will play after last week’s 37-31 thriller over the Badgers, which ended with college football’s play of the year – Keith Nichol’s crazy catch off the helmet and his push into the end zone.
Michigan State comes to Lincoln with wins in 17 of its last 20 games, its best run since 1965-66. Coach Mark Dantonio said there’s no problem preparing for yet another big game.
“I think if you’re going to have a special year, you’re going to have to do that over and over,” he said. “I also think players see opportunities and they try to rise to those occasions and get themselves ready to play.”
The Spartans have a one-game lead over Nebraska, Michigan and Iowa in the Legends Division. A win would put them up by two games over the Huskers and give them the tiebreaker.
“Big game, big environment,” Dantonio said. “It’s why you come to Michigan State and play in this conference. It’s a national type game that has national ramifications as well as conference ramifications.”
Michigan State’s November schedule is much gentler, with three games against teams currently winless in Big Ten play (Minnesota, Indiana and Northwestern). The Spartans still must go to Iowa, where they haven’t won since 1989, in two weeks.
Nebraska receiver Kenny Bell said if the Huskers don’t win Saturday, they won’t win the division. Next week’s home game against Northwestern is followed by back-to-back trips to Penn State and Michigan and a Thanksgiving week home game against new border rival Iowa.
Quarterback Taylor Martinez isn’t putting too much weight on one game, though.
“It doesn’t matter if we lose this game,” Martinez said. “Michigan State might lose to someone else. This doesn’t have to be a key game for us.”
The game matches the Big Ten’s top rushing team in Nebraska against the conference’s No. 1 and nation’s No. 8 rushing defense. Rex Burkhead and Martinez are combining for 198 yards a game on the ground, and the Huskers are averaging 261.
The Spartans, led by one of the best front fours in the nation, are allowing fewer than 89 yards rushing. They welcome back defensive end William Gholston, who was suspended from the Wisconsin game for throwing a punch the week before against Michigan.
“Any school in the Big Ten has a good defense,” Martinez said. “I think they’ll just be another good defense that we face.”
The Spartans continue to count on Kirk Cousins, who last week became the winningest quarterback in MSU history with his 22nd career victory. His main target is B.J. Cunningham, who had more than 100 yards receiving for the fourth time this season against Wisconsin.
The Huskers will do all they can to disrupt Cousins in the din of Memorial Stadium. Cousins has a history of struggling in big games, especially on the road. He threw an interception inside the Notre Dame 10-yard line as the Spartans tried to rally late in a 31-13 loss, and he was picked off twice as MSU scuffled to a 10-7 win at Ohio State.
Last year, he threw three interceptions in a 31-point loss at Iowa, and he was knocked out after four sacks in a 49-7 Capital One Bowl loss to Alabama.
The Huskers, however, have been unable to get consistent pressure on quarterbacks. They didn’t sack, let alone hurry, mobile Minnesota quarterback MarQueis Gray last week, and they’re 101st in the nation in sacks with just nine in seven games.
– AP Sports Writer/ERIC OLSON
(Copyright 2011 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)