LINCOLN, Neb. (AP) – Michigan State has defeated every Big Ten opponent it’s faced since 2011 except Nebraska. The Spartans, in fact, have never beaten the Cornhuskers.
Saturday’s game at Memorial Stadium marks the eighth Michigan State-Nebraska meeting, and the stakes have never been higher for the 14th-ranked Spartans.
If they win, they are all but assured of claiming the Legends Division. If they lose, Nebraska gains the inside track to the Big Ten championship game.
Michigan State (8-1) is 5-0 in Big Ten play for the first time in coach Mark Dantonio’s seven seasons and is coming off a bye week following its 29-6 dismantling of Michigan.
“We’ve allowed sort of the dust to settle a little bit in terms of where the conference is at and really where we go from here,” Dantonio said. “We’ve talked among our players about how the next three games are so important in the outcome of this football season. Got a great challenge in Lincoln waiting for us.”
The Huskers (7-2, 4-1) have put themselves in contention to win the division despite the loss of fourth-year starting quarterback Taylor Martinez to a foot issue, an injury-riddled offensive line and a road loss to Minnesota that fueled speculation about coach Bo Pelini’s future.
Since then the Huskers have beaten Northwestern at home on a Hail Mary and Michigan on the road with a smothering defensive performance.
Nebraska has flummoxed the Spartans since joining the Big Ten in 2011.
Michigan State averaged 33 points and 393 yards in games against seven other Big Ten opponents in 2011, but managed just 187 yards in a 24-3 loss in Lincoln. That was the Spartans’ only conference loss, and they went on to play in the Big Ten title game.
Last year, Michigan State allowed its seven other conference opponents an average of 86 yards rushing and 267 total, but Nebraska churned out 313 yards on the ground and 473 total and beat the Spartans 28-24 in East Lansing, Mich., on a touchdown with 6 seconds left.
The Spartans for the third straight year have a defense that’s putting up impressive numbers. They are best in the nation against the run and in total defense.
“But they can be beat,” said Tommy Armstrong Jr., who has taken over for Martinez. “When our offense is clicking, I don’t think there is anyone in the country that can stop us.”
Five things to watch as the Spartans and Huskers play for control of the Legends Division:
NEBRASKA’S LIMPING LINE: Lots of faces are changing places in a cursed season for the Huskers’ offensive line. Guard Mike Moudy, who took over for the injured Spencer Long four games ago, was hurt in practice this week and had his arm in a sling. Guard Jake Cotton has been out two weeks with a knee sprain and might be able to play. Zach Sterup is in line for his first start after tackle Jeremiah Sirles injured his knee last week. Cole Pensick, the regular center, is replaced by Mark Pelini.
TRIPLE-OPTION THREAT: The emergence of Armstrong has brought back the threat of the triple-option, the identity of old-school Nebraska football. Offensive coordinator Tim Beck surely will have the option on his play sheet against a Michigan State defense that loves to blitz. Armstrong’s option skills are the best Nebraska has had since Jammal Lord in the early 2000s. The Huskers went to the option on three of their 14 plays during the 75-yard winning drive against Michigan.
CONNOR COOK’S TURN: Kirk Cousins couldn’t beat Nebraska, and neither could Andrew Maxwell. Now it’s Connor Cook’s turn to get a crack at the Huskers. Cook is the first MSU quarterback since 1966 to win seven of his first eight starts. He’s thrown 13 touchdowns against three interceptions. His biggest test, to date, comes Saturday. “We have played well on the road, and so I expect him to have a great football game,” Dantonio said. “He’s going to have to create. There’s no question about that.”
BENNIE THE BALLER: If Nebraska is able to shut down the run, Cook is going to be relying on guys like Bennie Fowler. The fifth-year senior leads Spartans receivers with 353 yards, five touchdowns and seven catches for 20 yards or longer. All five of his TDs have come in the last six games.
SPARTAN SENIORS: A victory over Nebraska would make the Michigan State seniors the winningest group in the program’s 117-year history. The 2013 seniors are 37-12 (.755) since 2010.
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