When: Sat., Nov. 7; 7 p.m. ET
Where: Lincoln, NE; Memorial Stadium
All-Time Series: Nebraska leads, 7-2
Last Meeting: Michigan State 27-22 (2014)
Line: Michigan State -5
This was supposed to be the best cross-division game on the entire conference schedule heading into the season, as Nebraska and Michigan State have competed for conference championships each of the past four seasons. However, this game has been largely overshadowed by a big slate of national games and thanks to Nebraska’s struggles in 2015. Granted, this game still has playoff implications for the undefeated Spartans, but this is now a game that pundits think should be easily won instead of a big test.
Will Michigan State overlook the Cornhusker threat or come out slow following the bye in a hostile night game road environment (Nebraska has won 16 straight night games at Memorial Stadium)? Let’s count to five and preview this old Legends Division rivalry.
1 Burning Question: Does Nebraska muster the best effort of the season with bowl eligibility on the line?
Before last week’s game against Purdue, Nebraska needed three wins in four games to make a bowl after the 3-5 start. The Cornhuskers had lost a lot of tough heartbreakers, so even with two Top-10 teams left on the docket in Michigan State and Iowa, it did still seem like the Cornhuskers could turn it around and get one of those big games to make the postseason. One surprising loss at West Lafayette later, and now Nebraska needs to win out against those tougher teams to make a bowl.
That seems unlikely to happen, but the Cornhuskers are a proud program that has not missed a bowl in quite some time. Bo Pelini might have lost four games a season, but he never lost more than that, which put Nebraska in the postseason consistently. With Mike Reilly perhaps not being given as much time to make things work, it is important that this team show some progress before the end of the year.
Michigan State has had trouble putting teams away decisively though, including a 1-2 record against the spread in road games. The one cover in that time period was the miracle win against rival Michigan, so take that for what it’s worth. That may explain why this line seems very low for a game between an 8-0 team and a 3-6 team, as perhaps Vegas expects continued struggles by the Spartans or a great performance by Nebraska here.
It’s put up or shut up time for Nebraska. If the Cornhuskers want to avoid a historically bad season, this team needs to play the best game of the year.
2 Key Stats
— 33.4 and 33.3. That is scoring average for these teams, ranking only behind Ohio State in the conference this season. One big reason to tune into this night game is if you like big offense, as this could become a Big 12-like affair. Both teams have struggled to defend the pass this season, which bodes well for two of the more effective quarterbacks in the league Connor Cook and Tommy Armstrong (assuming the latter plays, as planned). Both teams will move the ball and likely eclipse 400 yards in this contest, meaning last team with the ball might just win, as is typical in Nebraska games this season.
— 39.0 (MSU) and 69.6 (NEB). That’s the average penalty yardage per game for these teams. Other than the series of brutal losses in every close game imaginable, Nebraska fans have been highly frustrated by the lack of discipline this team has shown. That shows up most notably in two areas, turnovers and penalties. Michigan State is 18 turnovers better in turnover margin and 30 yards per game better in penalties committed, which is a lot of yardage and mistakes/big plays to overcome. With Nebraska’s defense not playing great, this lack of discipline for the Cornhuskers helps explain the 3-6 record.
3 Key Players
Connor Cook, Michigan State QB — Cook has thrown two, yes just TWO, interceptions on the season. That’s an upperclassman leader who knows when to throw the ball and when to save a play for another day or another series. Thanks to the emergence of Aaron Burbridge as a top target (104 yards receiving per game), Cook has been able to lead the Spartan offense to over 250 yards passing per game. Nebraska is actually fairly tough on defense against the run, but the secondary and pass coverage is putrid. Cook should have his best game of the season against this defense.
Shilique Calhoun, Michigan State DE — Calhoun may have gotten off to a slow start this season as more attention was directed his way, but the better play across the Spartan defensive line has opened up more opportunities for him to make big impact plays. Calhoun now has 8 sacks on the season to go with 10.5 tackles for loss. His play in pressuring and containing the running ability of Tommy Armstrong will be key for Michigan State to have a good game defensively against the potent Nebraska offense.
Jordan Westerkamp, Nebraska WR — Much like Nebraska, Michigan State has struggled at times to stop the passing game, as the so-called “no fly zone” has not lived up to that billing against top-level quarterbacks this season. With Armstrong perhaps not being willing to risk himself in the running game when not fully healthy, he will need a big effort out of his top receiver Westerkamp to make the big plays necessary to hang around with the Spartans on Saturday night. As Westerkamp and the Nebraska receivers go, so will the offense and also the chances for the upset by the home team.
4 Bold Prognostications
Both teams go over 400 yards of offense: This was briefly mentioned above when talking about the offensive scoring stats, but I expect both of these quarterbacks to lead their offenses to big days against struggling defenses. There will be no appearance by the No Fly Zone or the Blackshirts on Saturday night, as this becomes a shootout to beat all shootouts in the Big Ten, except for that crazy Rutgers-Indiana game last month.
Michigan State generates 3 turnovers: Nebraska has given up the ball 17 times this year, which is about two turnovers per game. I expect this to be a sloppy effort by both teams, with MSU turning the ball over a couple of times but still winning the turnover battle thanks to a couple of Tommy Armstrong interceptions and a fumble. Instead of deciding the game, these turnovers will simply be the interesting shifts in momentum as this game ebbs and flows with tons of offense.
Michigan State gets a red zone defensive stop: Nebraska has been the second most efficient Big Ten team in the red zone, scoring on 36 of 39 trips there. This includes 27 touchdowns, which leads the conference. However, whether it is by a turnover or a fourth-down stop, I predict that the Spartans will find a way to stop the Husker machine inside the red zone at least once this game. It will be a bend-but-don’t-break defensive effort anyway for MSU, if my other bold predictions turn out correct.
Jordan Westerkamp ends with more receiving yards than Aaron Burbrurdge: These are two of the top receivers in the conference but Burbridge has owned a clear edge statistically in receptions and in yards per contest. Despite Nebraska’s pass defense being worse on the whole compared to the MSU pass defense, I expect Westerkamp to have the better day overall as Armstrong will need to rely on him much more than Cook has to rely on any one of his targets to be effective. Westerkamp breaks at least one, if not more big plays to shorten the gap in receiving average between him and Burbridge following this game on Saturday night.
5 Staff Predictions: (overall season record; record against the spread)
Andy: Michigan State 31-27 (68-17 overall; 37-47 ATS)
Dave: Michigan State 33-20 (69-16 overall; 44-39 ATS)
Greg: Michigan State 31-23 (62-23 overall; 47-36 ATS)
Matt: Michigan State 48-34 (68-17 overall; 50-33 ATS)
Phil: Michigan State 38-27 (23-9 overall; 11-18 ATS) *joined in Week 5