They may not be taking a 14 hour bus ride right now, but there are plenty of reasons that 15 of Michigan State's 22 starters should be bitter about playing the Nebraska Cornhuskers in East Lansing tomorrow. Along with getting drubbed 24-3 in Lincoln last year, the Spartans have never beaten the Cornhuskers in their brief history as conference rivals.
Last year's squad was ground down early and often as the Huskers pounded the ball out of an option look all day long. Taylor Martinez, unlike most mobile quarterbacks that play against MSU, was able to run free and confuse the Spartan defense all day. Sparty's inability to lock up Martinez on the ground incidentally made him a dual threat, as he was able to use his above-average receiving corps and tight ends to their fullest. Martinez's ability to run the option made sure the defense was tired and also ate up the clock, allowing minimal time for NFL draftee Kirk Cousins to operate.
Although Michigan State football isn't where most Spartan fans thought they were going to be in terms of conference standings this year, the outlook on the game is mostly optimistic. Saturday's battle will really be a huge test for the Spartans, but they will be relying even more than usual on the strength of their defense to help the team achieve victory. That 11-man defensive unit will be opposed by the best offense in the Big 10 in total yards per game and scoring. Coincidentally though, the Spartans allow the least points per game in the conference and the least total yards. Furthermore, Michigan State's defense is a statistical top 20 in most major defensive categories, including a no. 7 overall ranking in rushing yards against per game, something that Nebraska will try to work around throughout the game.
If Michigan State is going to win this football game in front of their home crowd tomorrow, they'll need to accomplish a couple things on defense that they haven't necessarily excelled in this season so far. What the Spartans may need to improve on the most is their ability to take the ball away from their opponents. Sparty only has a +1 overall turnover margin, a figure that is way down from last year. If they want to expose the Nebraska offense, Michigan State will need to exploit Nebraska's -8 turnover differential and make the Huskers fumble the football. Another way the Spartans could improve their odds is by getting pressure on the quarterback. The Spartans rank 101st in FBS play with only nine sacks to their credit this season, so hopefully they will blitz a few extra defenders to make Martinez uncomfortable in the pocket.
Tomorrow's test for the Spartans is a true match up of strength versus strength, with literally the best offense in the conference going up against the best defense. However, what this game will come down to is what junior quarterback, Andrew Maxwell, can do against the Nebraska defense. His 113.6 passer rating is a good deal lower than even Taylor Martinez's passer rating even as a freshman or sophomore, so he and his young wide receiving corps will have to up their game if they want to lock in another consecutive Bowl berth. Either way, this game will be a low scoring one that comes down to turnovers and Andrew Maxwell's ability to manage the game.
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