Well, good Friday morning to you fine folks. We're just a little over 24 hours away till your Nebraska Cornhuskers go on the road inside the
Leaders B1G West division to take on the Michigan State Spartans in a game that ESPN has deemed worthy for your viewership.
There are some (many) of you wondering what the opinion of these Spartans are from themselves. For that, of course we got a hold of Chris Vannini, a fine looking young man who is one of the great guys at The Only Colors, our Michigan State SBNation blog.
We talked about how MSU's season has looked so far, with a look at both the offense and defensive sides of the ball. I also think I opened Chris' eyes to the ticket situation for the game, and how Spartan Stadium has changed since the last time Nebraska visited 17 years ago.
Chris also would like to point out to you folks that are heading up to the game that The Only Colors did a fantastic visitors guide to East Lansing and you can access that right here.
1) This season hasn’t been the one that I think Spartans fans were thinking it could be. Give the casual fan a quick overview of the season up to last week’s OT win at Wisconsin.
It started off according to plan. The 17-13 win over Boise State was a little too close for comfort, but MSU put up more than 400 yards of offense and the defense was great. A dominating win against Central Michigan followed. But then the wheels fell off against Notre Dame. The right tackle was lost for the year before the game, and the offensive line couldn't block anything in a 20-3 loss. Looking back, that loss doesn't look as bad, though. But the receivers had major problems catching the ball, and that continued for weeks. The starting center went down for the year against Ohio State, and the receiving problems continued in a 17-16 loss. The receivers have improved since then, but the offensive line was down 3.5 starters against Michigan in a last-second loss. That followed an ugly overtime loss to Iowa.
MSU's three Big Ten losses have come by six total points. It looked like another close loss last week, until the light when on and the Spartans rallied late for an overtime win in Madison. Six of MSU's nine games have been decided by four points or less. That happens with an elite defense and a pretty putrid offense.
2) The defense has paid the bills this year by far for Michigan State. Talk about the Immovable Object (MSU’s D) going against what seems to be the Irresistible Force in Nebraska’s offense.
Until the Michigan game, the defense was prone to give up some big plays while not getting the negative plays they feasted on in 2011 (TFLs, turnovers, etc). They still haven't gotten the turnovers, but the blitzes have finally been getting through consistently. They had nine TFLs against Michigan and then 12 TFLs and five sacks against Wisconsin, so it appears that part is getting back on track. The lack of negative plays had actually made MSU's defensive rankings even more impressive, before recent weeks.
The Spartans are near the top in the nation in most defensive yardage categories. The competition hasn't been great, yes, but Football Outsiders' FEI ratings actually rank MSU as the No. 1 defense. When they do bend, they haven't broken much. They're allowing a field goal on 60 percent of opponents' red zone trips, which leads the nation by 15 percent and would be the highest percentage in the country in years, if it holds up. They've allowed the third-fewest touchdowns in the nation (10), but also the most field goals (17).
3) The Spartan’s offense has been a touch rough this year. It seems like people did expect more of this group at the beginning of the year. What’s been the main issues?
It's been a combination of everything, really. I mentioned it above, but the offensive line really has been a wreck due to injuries. The receivers drop problems seemed to have been solved, but they're all young and don't run very good routes, meaning they don't get open. The play-calling also has been questioned frequently, but it's certainly hard to call a good game when none of the pieces are working.
The good news is that the entire offense is set to return next season (though Le'Veon Bell may go pro). Andrew Maxwell has actually done a pretty good job with his reads and most of his throws, but he has been a little skittish in the pocket (and who can blame him?). He threw three interceptions in the opening half against Boise State, but has thrown just two since then. Unfortunately, one came in overtime against Iowa and ended the game on a tipped ball.
Le'Veon Bell still gets a lot of hype because of his individual stats, but he hasn't done much in recent weeks. It's hard to do anything behind MSU's current line.
4) Looks like Spartan Stadium has gotten a fantastic facelift from last year. Since Nebraska fan hasn’t visited it since 1995, can you tell us what’s changed since then?
Quite a bit. In 2002, the artificial turf was replaced by real grass. Given MSU was founded as an agricultural school, this was a long time coming. (That grass was replaced in the summer of 2011 after U2 came for a concert. The band paid for the replacement grass as part of the deal, so that was cool). In 2005, new press box/luxury boxes were added atop the west end zone. The old press box in between the lower and upper deck was turned into club seating.
This summer, the scoreboards were finally replaced. The south end zone board is the fifth-largest in college football, while two smaller boards were added to the north end zone, along with a long video ribbon board. They're really quite a sight. All in all, it's pretty nice. A plan is in place to add a recruiting/media building to the north side next summer. MSU is finally investing in football like a school that wants to compete for the Big Ten every year.
5) Tickets for this game are as cheap as $5 for Saturday. Seeing this, is there a fear of the Sea of Red taking over the green?
Hooooly crap. I hadn't checked StubHub until you mentioned that. That's just embarrassing. No way around it. I don't know if it's as much of a fear about the Sea of Red as it is an expectation, now. Mark Dantonio has mentioned it a few times this week. Given those prices, I'm starting to wonder if Nebraska fans will outnumber MSU fans. But that's what happens when expectations go up with prices. MSU actually sold a record number of season tickets this year (more than 60,000), but with three home losses already and a Legends division title all but out of reach, the fair-weather fans have abandoned ship. MSU has been top 25 in the nation in attendance for decades, and it was always a point of pride when the team was bad. But back-to-back 11-win seasons (and subsequent price increases) have raised the expectations quickly.
Still, this is likely a bowl team, and people can quickly forget how bad things used to be. Straight up, it's embarrassing for MSU.
6) We know about Le’Veon Bell and Andrew Maxwell on offense and William Gholston on defense. Who else on both sides of the ball should Nebraska fans watch and why?
On offense? Well.... there's not much. The best weapon outside of Bell is tight end Dion Sims, who was MSU's top receiver before missing some games with an ankle injury. Receivers Aaron Burbridge, Bennie Fowler and Tony Lippett can make plays, but they can also disappear.
On defense, linebacker Max Bullough is the top guy. He'll be all over the field, and you'll probably hear his name more than anyone else. Linebacker Denicos Allen has also stepped up over the past few games after a slow start. Bullough and Allen will be blitzing up the middle quite a bit. In the secondary, cornerback Johnny Adams and safety Isaiah Lewis are the top guys.
7) Alright, prediction time. How do you see this game going on Saturday afternoon, and what do you think the final score will be?
I think this will be just like every other MSU Big Ten game this season. It will come down to the end and who can make a big play on offense or defense. I think MSU's offense got some confidence after last week, and the defense has been lights out. I guess Rex Burkhead's status is still up in the air? That could be big, as I think he'd find more success against MSU than Abdullah. I'm going 17-13 MSU, but I could easily see that flipped the other way.