EAST LANSING - In the something's got to give category we present you with Michigan State's next big challenge - the running game of the Nebraska Cornhuskers.
After conquering the challenge of slowing down Wisconsin's vaunted running attack, the Spartans (5-4, 2-3 Big Ten) now face the Big Ten's No. 1 ground assault when the No. 21 Huskers (6-2, 3-1), who now have the inside track on capturing the Legends Division after stomping Michigan 23-9 last weekend, square off against MSU at 3:30 p.m. Saturday at Spartan Stadium.
And while Nebraska's run game may not hearken memories of the days when Tom Osborne roamed the sidelines in Lincoln, for MSU, which leads the Big Ten in total defense, rushing defense and scoring defense, the Cornhuskers' 264.1 rushing yards a game is an impressive stat.
Especially, when you consider that Nebraska also leads the Big Ten in total offense (489.1 yards per game) and scoring offense (39.3 points per game).
Last season, the Spartans took a 24-3 beating in Lincoln to fall to 0-6 all-time in its meetings with Nebraska.
It's a series that started back in 1914 and has seen MSU's closest margin of defeat total just four points back in 2003's Alamo Bowl. All in all, the Cornhuskers have outscored the Spartans by an average of 34.2 points per game to just 6.2 for MSU.
"Last year we didn't play very well against them,'' MSU coach Mark Dantonio said. "That was probably the one game, especially in the Big Ten Conference, that we didn't come and play as well as we had previously. I think our players want to atone for that a little bit. They look back at that game and say, 'we can do better.' That's the main thing, the main focus.''
In last season's game, running back Rex Burkhead used his fullback's mentality and trampled over the Spartans' defense to the tune of 130 yards on 35 carries.
Burkhead, a senior who is recovering from a left knee injury that sidelined him against the Wolverines, could once again be out for Saturday's rematch, but with sophomore Ameer Abdullah, who leads Nebraska's ground game with 716 yards and 5.6 yards a carry - including eight touchdowns - the Cornhuskers' run game is in good hands.
Abdullah ran for 101 yards on 24 carries, while scoring a touchdown against U-M, proving Nebraska's next-man up policy stayed in tact.
Of course, if you slow Abdullah, you've still got to contend with the dual-threat abilities of junior quarterback Taylor Martinez.
Martinez accounted for 224 yards of total offense by himself last Saturday, averaging 4.1 yards a carry after running for 58 yards and going 14-of-24 in the passing game for 166 yards and a touchdown.
Entering Saturday's showdown in Spartan Stadium, Martinez is responsible for 1,781 yards and 16 TDs through the air and 461 yards and six scores with his feet. He has thrown just five picks.
Although Martinez runs a lot less than he did in his first two seasons at Nebraska, he has still proven to be more than just a viable run option for the Huskers. Against Ohio State, he ran the ball 18 times for 40 yards and two touchdowns.
Whether Burkhead is ready to play or not shouldn't really matter to MSU's defense according to leading tackler and junior captain Max Bullough.
He said its the Cornhuskers' running game as a whole that MSU will be trying to derail, not any specific running back that operates inside that scheme.
It's a scheme that has scored 21 rushing TDs this season and produced a 100-yard rusher in seven-straight games. That has helped Nebraska accumulate an average gain of 7.47 yards on first down in eight-straight games.
In addition to Abdullah, sophomore Braylon Heard has added 31 carries for 226 yards (7.3 yards per carry) and two TDs, while freshman Imani Cross has 34 carries for 248 yards and two touchdowns.
Prior to being sidelined with his knee injury, Burkhead had piled up 405 yards on 47 carries, while getting in the endzone three times. He also had four receptions for 29 yards and a TD.
"Maybe their play-calling will be a little different I guess (with Abdullah getting most of the carries) but not really. It's pretty similar,'' said Bullough, who leads MSU with 77 tackles, including nine for loss and two sacks. "They have a whole stable of backs back there that are very good players and a lot of them are very similar. Rex has kind of been the guy the last few but those other guys have stepped in and done a great job, whether it's pass-pro, running it or whatever it is, so their gameplan pretty much remains the same.''
Aiding Bullough's cause to restrain the Huskers' potent offense will be fellow starting linebackers Denicos Allen and Chris Norman, who together enter Saturday's contest with a combined 97 stops, including 11 tackles for loss and two sacks.
And subbing in, depending on the down and distance, are redshirt junior Kyler Elsworth and sophomore Taiwan Jones, who add a combined 35 tackles, including 7.5 for loss and three sacks.
"It's not anything fancy. They line up and they do what they do,'' Pelini said. "They play aggressive, they play hard, and they are physical up front. They challenge receivers on the outside in the secondary. They are well-coached. I have a lot of respect for the way they play defense over there."
While Nebraska's run game is the bread and butter of a tough, win-it-at-the-line, in-the-trenches kind of mentality, the Huskers do have a stable option in the passing game, led by sophomore Kenny Bell.
Bell's numbers. although not spectacular, seem to indicate that when he does touch the ball he is very productive.
With just 28 catches, he has gained 591 yards and is tied for third overall on the team in scoring at 36 points, having scored six TDs. Bell averages 21 yards a catch. Additionally, he has 12 kick returns and is averaging 22.8 yards a pop.
The offensive line is an experienced group comprised of all seniors and juniors, and is led by 6-2, 290-pound left guard Seung Hoon Choi.
This means MSU's defense will be facing its toughest challenge of the season.
"There's definitely pride,'' Bullough said in regards to facing off against a well-coordinated offense like Nebraska's. "There's pride in whoever you're playing as a defense but when you get to go against an extremely talented group that's really playing well like Nebraska, it's fun to test and see where you're at and see how well you measure up against those units.''
While the defense will have its hands full slowing Nebraska's offense, MSU's offense is going to have to build on the success and execution it exhibited, especially late in its overtime victory at Wisconsin and its late-game success in its win at Indiana.
Other than the Indiana game, last week's win was MSU's best example of the offense actually getting it done in a pressure situation and with some consistency late in a game.
While the defense will have its hands full trying to contain Nebraska's running game, MSU's offense, led by Andrew Maxwell's 2,015 yards and nine TDs, is going to have to sustain more drives than it has been all season.
Three-and-outs will mean even more time on the field against a Cornhusker offense that is accustomed to wearing down its opponents with long, run-dominated drives.
Maxwell's cause to put Nebraska in catch-up mode will be aided by the feet of junior running back Le'Veon Bell, who has gained 1,061 yards and is averaging 4.3 yards a carry. Bell has scored eight touchdowns this seasons and will probably need to produce a 100-yard plus performance on Saturday if MSU expects to win.
"You have to get on him quickly. He's a big physical back and you don't want to get him rolling,'' Nebraska's Bo Pelini said of Bell. "He's one of the better backs in the league. He can run the ball, but he can also hurt you in the passing game. He's shown the ability to catch balls."
While the Spartans are hoping to have a healthier target in its passing game with junior tight end Dion Sims still getting back up to speed after an ankle injury, MSU's wide receivers of late, which includes leading pass catcher Keith Mumphery, have shown the can be more just secondary options but actual threats in moving the ball downfield.
Junior Bennie Fowler, who caught the game-winner against Wisconsin last week, sophomore Tony Lippett and freshman Aaron Burbridge are going to have to make some explosive plays in the passing game in order to prevent the Cornhuskers from stacking the box to take away the effectiveness of Bell.
That means dropped passes cannot become an epidemic in this game if MSU wants to establish any offensive continuity.
While Nebraska's offensive output has gotten most of the attention this, all of those opportunities wouldn't have been possible if it were not for a pretty good effort on the other side of the ball.
Looking to stop MSU's scoring threats and leading the Cornhuskers' Blackshirts defense will be senior middle linebacker Will Compton, who tops Nebraska with 62 stops, which includes six tackles for loss and three sacks.
Compton headlines a Nebraska defense that is first in conference play in sacks per game at three and tackles for loss at seven. Senior defensive end Eric Martin paces the Huskers in tackles for loss with 10. All in all, 12 defenders have 20 or more tackles.
And senior safety P.J. Smith, who has two interceptions, leads a secondary that allows just 160.8 yards a game. That's good for third in the Big Ten.
"(They are) very good on the defensive side of the ball. I think Compton, their linebacker, 51, is an outstanding football player,'' Dantonio said. "(I've) been very impressed with their secondary, their corners. (They are) very, very good in pass defense.''
WHAT TO WATCH FOR:
FOR MSU Usually, a team's punter is looked at as a key to the game but in this instance Mike Sadler's kicks will be important because you don't want to give a team like the Huskers good field position when they go on offense.
FOR NEBRASKA The Cornhuskers do so many things well that you almost don't notice that they are last in the Big Ten in turnover margin at minus-1.0. Big Red may need a couple of miscues by the Spartans in order to seal the deal on Saturday.
...More... To continue reading this article you must be a member. Sign Up Now for a FREE Trial