Another stiff challenge awaits Nebraska on Saturday in East Lansing. The Spartan defense had been considered the class of the B1G before the season started and they have held true to form. This will be the toughest defense Nebraska has faced, and probably the toughest it will face the remainder of the year.
On the flip side, the Michigan State offense is one of the most porous in the B1G. They aren't explosive and have struggled to put up points. Historically the Spartans haven't had much success against Nebraska, 0-6 all-time, including being shut out of the end zone the past two times they've played. Both of those games came against Pelini defenses.
The Cornhuskers have put themselves in great position for a chance at the West Division Title. But a recurring theme this week is for all cornheads to check their optimism. This team needs to figure out how to deal with moderate success and expectations. We've seen it many times the past few years where it appears the team is heading in the right direction and in control of its own destiny, only to have an unexpected and unexplained letdown.
This is a game Nebraska should win. Michigan St. has a better defense, but the Blackshirts are beginning to gel and are finding their groove, while the Nebraska offense, if (a big if) it can avoid crippling penalties and turnovers, is worlds ahead of the Spartan offense.
I don't think this game will be a blowout, and Michigan St. has shown the propensity to keep games close (a great defense will do that for you), but if Nebraska can accomplish the following keys, they should improve to 7-2, 4-1 in conference play.
- Bottle up Bell: Le'Veon Bell is a beast of a running back. He has power, speed, agility, and sees the field well. He can run over you, around you, and past you. Given the improved play of the Nebraska secondary the past couple weeks, and their ability to man-up on the opposing wide receivers, I fully expect Nebraska to focus on the run while allowing the corners to play physical man-on-man coverage against the Spartans' underwhelming receivers. Daimion Stafford and P.J. Smith need to be ready to take on Bell, and the linebackers, who have also played much better the past couple weeks, need to get off the blocks and stick Bell before he can get a head of steam going.
- Field Position: All the evidence points to an old-school, physical, smack-you-in-the-mouth game where fundamentals and field position can pay huge dividends. The first team to 20 probably wins. And this is where Brett Maher will come into play. Force Michigan St. to drive the length of the field. What's the old adage? Sometimes a punt is a good football play. I like Nebraska's chances if the Spartans have to continually start drives inside their own 30. Conversely, their defense is too good to expect Taylor Martinez and the offense to consistently drive the length of the field.
- Road Warriors: For some reason, true road games have been a bugaboo for Nebraska the past couple years. And, no, the Northwestern game can't be considered a true road game. Nebraska has to deal with an unknown and new environment, manage the crowd (which can be difficult when running the fast tempo as it always appears Taylor Martinez has to verbally repeat the play call to almost every individual player), and become comfortable in an uncomfortable environment. Adding to that, prior to this year, Michigan St. had been very formidable at home. Nebraska needs to figure out how to....wait for it.....wait for it......execute on the road.
- Block: The last thing Nebraska wants to see is William Gholston, the freakish talent at defensive end, and the Michigan St. defensive line bearing down on Martinez's blind side. In the "old days" (I know, I know, I know) this is a game Nebraska's offensive line would relish and win for the team. If the offense can control the line of scrimmage, Nebraska wins. And I think it is entirely possible. For all the hand wringing about Barney Cotton and the offensive line, they are a major contributor to this offense being #1 in the conference. The center, Justin Jackson, and the three guards seeing playing time, Seung Hoon Choi, Spencer Long, and Cole Pensick, are excellent pullers, and for the most part, maulers in the running game. They need to open up holes, and everyone, tight ends, running backs, and especially the tackles, need to give Martinez time in the pocket.
- Make a Big Play: This spot is typically reserved for the all-important "win the turnover battle", which is a key for every game. But as mentioned above, Nebraska may have a difficult time sustaining long drives on the road versus the stout Spartan defense. Nebraska will need an explosive play or two from one of the immensely talented skill players. There is no shortage of options; the likes of Kenny Bell, Jamal Turner, Quincy Enunwa, Ameer Abdullah, Taylor Martinez, or Kyler Reed all have the capability to change a game in an instant. Breaking loose for a big gainer and/or touchdown will go a long way in securing a victory.