Well, the day of another Nebraska Cornhuskers game is upon us. Tomorrow night, they take on the Michigan State Spartans, a team in the top 10 of the College Football Playoff rankings and a legit contender in the Big Ten Conference.
We obviously want to know more about Sparty, so for that I put the call out to The Only Colors, the Michigan State SBNation community. Joe Tuohey, one of the site's managers, was good enough to answer my rambling state of questions.
We thank Joe and the staff over at TOC for this week, and invite you to check out their work before, during and after the game Saturday night.
1. No complaints about the start that Michigan State has had, and a top 10 ranking in the College Football Playoffs ranking to boot. What’s the feeling of the Spartan team & fanbase coming into this prime-time affair in Lincoln?
That's a really good question. Obviously the fanbase is ecstatic with the job that Mark Dantonio and his staff have done, but expectations coming into the season were sky-high and some closer-than-expected wins have made MSU fans a little wary. There's also a little unrest about the initial #7 ranking by the playoff committee but the prevailing opinion is that MSU just needs to keep winning and the rankings will take care of themselves (which is the right mindset, anyways).
2. Connor Cook is what, I would think, many programs would want at Quarterback. The guy manages games, does a little more when he has to, and wins. Has anything changed since the last time the Huskers played him last year, save a year older?
Over the offseason there were some #hottakes about Cook not being elected a captain by his teammates, but that's PFTCommenter-level stuff. Cook is who he is at this point; on some downs he looks like he could be a Heisman winner, and on others you wonder why he isn't pulled from the game. I think he's been a little better at avoiding totally disastrous interceptions, which has been helpful. MSU fans are more ambivalent about Cook than you'd expect given the success he's had throughout his career, mostly because of those inconsistencies.
3. Even thought L.J. Scott has more yards, he & Madre London are splitting the carries pretty evenly. What should Nebraska expect to see when either one totes the ball?
The running backs situation is generally an interesting one. Four co-starters are listed on the depth chart: Scott, London, Gerald Holmes, and Delton Williams. The guy with the highest upside is Scott, who is a true freshman but is wildly athletic for a guy who weighs in above 230. I get the impression they're trying to save Scott a little bit for the rest of the season, though. Madre London has been injured and hasn't played in almost a month; he's a redshirt freshman who is more of a home-run threat. Gerald Holmes, a sophomore, is a physical guy who does a nice job staying on his feet to churn out a couple extra yards; Delton Williams is a junior who missed a lot of time over the summer because of a road rage incident. I wouldn't be surprised by any combination of those four getting playing time.
4. The passing attack centers around Aaron Burbridge, as he has double the catches & more than double the yards of the next person on the MSU stat sheet. What does he bring to the game, and who else should we watch for as Cook throws?
It has been amazing to see how far Burbridge has come in the last season. Cook is an accurate enough passer to throw to receivers' back shoulders all day, and Burbridge is often the most trusted recipient of those types of passes. The mindset seems to be that they can beat any cover corner one-on-one with Cook's accuracy and Burbridge's ability to high-point the ball. The rest of the receiving corps has gotten better at this as well, but it basically doesn't matter who covers Burbridge if it is one-on-one.
The biggest thing to watch with Cook is his footwork. At times he doesn't step into his throws and sails them high; this happens most often when he's throwing towards the left side, for whatever reason.
5. Even though Michigan State is undefeated, the Defense has seemed to just gotten a touch worse. One would think that’s due to Pat Narduzzi leaving for Pitt as one of the main reasons. Even though the MSU D is still stout, is that a fair statement or not?
Oh, the defense is certainly not a vintage MSU defense from the 2011-2013 period. However, I think there are two non-Narduzzi reasons: first, the personnel in the secondary just isn't what it used to be, and second, this defense doesn't have to win games for MSU anymore. In the 2011-2013 period, guys like Darqueze Dennard, Trae Waynes, Isaiah Lewis, and Kurtis Drummond in the secondary made it possible to play an especially aggressive press quarters defense. This Saturday, two true freshmen will start at safety. Second, behind Connor Cook the offense has become a unit to build around, which means that a more conservative defensive style works well. We've seen MSU give up more yardage while still forcing turnovers and tightening in the red zone.
Narduzzi is missed, but I don't think his departure is the main reason for the decline of MSU's defense.
6. Mark Dantonio has not given another school a whisper of a thought to leave East Lansing for. That being said, his alma mater over at South Carolina may be coming to the door with a Brinks truck. Would Mark ever truly entertain the thought of leaving Michigan State, or no chance?
I give it no chance. For one, Dantonio has said that MSU is a destination job (to the delight of many MSU fans and Nick Saban haters). But also, Dantonio doesn't have the recruiting connections or experience in the south - he graduated from USC in the 70's and has coached in the midwest for nearly his entire career. I think Coach D is content with the setup he's got at MSU, and he'll have job security in East Lansing for as long as he wants the job.
7. Even though the Nebraska season is somewhat down, for a lack of a better term, is there any type of a trap game feeling coming from East Lansing on this game at all?
Definitely. MSU fans, after years and years of mental scarring, take no B1G game for granted and especially not one in Lincoln. The egg laid by the 2011 team in Lincoln is of particular memory. I think the feeling of #disrespekt coming from the polls will help the MSU team stay motivated. And let's say it how it is: this MSU team is scratching to get to the upper echelon of college football, a place with national name recognition. To get there, you have to beat teams with national recognition like Nebraska when you have the opportunity to do so. Unless you're a very new MSU fan, this game is absolutely nothing to overlook.
8. Speaking of the game, should we expect a lot of Green in the stands for this one?
I would expect a few but not a ton. Thanks to Delany's ever-expanding conference strategy, MSU doesn't play in Lincoln again until 2018, so I would guess some folks will make the trip; however the road games against Michigan and Ohio State are more likely destinations for MSU fans this season. Also, though I think success over time has increased the propensity for Spartans to travel, Nebraska is far (#analysis).
9. Are there any players that we haven’t mentioned above that we should be watching out for come Saturday?
The MSU defensive line is terrific, with Shilique Calhoun and Lawrence Thomas at defensive end as well as Malik McDowell at defensive tackle. Those guys are the strength of the defense and should cause some havoc.
Also, MSU's special teams have been horrible. Return coverage, punting and kicking, and even long snapping have all been an issue at various times throughout the season.
10. Prediction time. A prime-time Big Ten matchup and the country is watching, who wins this and why?
Nebraska, especially if Tommy Armstrong is healthy, can make some hay against a shaky MSU secondary. But I think MSU's offense behind Connor Cook is too much to overcome and MSU outscores Nebraska 38-28.