For part of today's preview (I'll have overall thoughts and a prediction later this evening) I did a Q&A with the good people over at Nebraska blog Corn Nation. My questions are in italics.
Ricky Smith - I’d give it about a 6. For the first half of the year, a solid 8 to 8.5, but after Ohio State, he seems to have settled down, has hung onto the damn ball and has made better decisions.
Mike: Personally, about a 3. Mostly around press conferences. I’ve seen him mature quite a bit this season on the field.
Jon Johnston: I’ve been more frustrated with our new offensive coordinator Tim Beck than Martinez. The Wisconsin game is a good example. After Martinez threw two interceptions that resulted in 14 Badger points, Beck comes right out at the start of the second half and has Martinez throw again. Result, interception, and another Badger touchdown. Like Mike and Ricky have said, Martinez has matured a lot this season. He’s made better decisions, he slides when he’s going to get hit hard, he’s done a better job of ball security. He’s still a work in progress, but he’s getting there.
On that same scale, how pleased have you been with Rex Burkhead's play?
Ricky: I’d give him about an 11. See what I did there? I made it more than 10. That’s how pleased I am. He’s a freak. We haven’t seen a north/south runner with his type of shifty moves in a long time. Oh, and he can pass out of the Wildcat and formation and I think he also builds churches, heals lepers and brings peace to all nations in the off-season.
Mike: Make it a 8. Most any play, he seems to find 3 to 5 extra yards. Absolutely solid. The only thing I wish he did was take a play to the house. Almost always, a safety runs him down.
Lavonte David is a beast. But who else should MSU keep an eye on while Nebraska's on defense?
Ricky: Keep an eye on the corners. Alfonzo Dennard (Ed. note -- cousin of MSU corner Darqueze Dennard -- Pete) has been slow to come back from his injury, but he’s usually all over the field. Don’t sleep on Stanley Jean-Baptiste. This game is his baptism by fire. Get it? Baptism? Baptiste? Good lord, I’m hilarious. Reilly has nothing on me. Seriously, he’s going to be a good one. Just hope he’s a good one on Saturday. I guarantee you that Mr. Cousins will be picking on him all day.
Mike: I’m hoping it’s Cameron Meredith. I’m sure you would agree that Kirk Cousins doesn’t pose much of a rushing threat, so Meredith won’t need to worry about Cousins scrambling out of the way. He’ll be able to rush full-speed...and he’ll need to, because if Cousins has all day to look for his receivers, it’ll be a long day for the Huskers.
Jon: I would hope that defensive tackles Baker Steinkuhler and Chase Room can step up and have a good game in stopping the run. Michigan State’s offensive line hasn’t done all that well in the run game this season, and that battle will be the key to this game.
The Huskers haven't had many tackles for a loss or sacks this year. Is this due to the scheme?
Ricky: I think it’s due to youth in the secondary. For the first half of the year, they were really green. A lot of their sacks in the past were because the QB had no one to throw to. That happens when you have 5 NFL guys back there (I’m including the nickel and dime guys, too.)
Mike: What Ricky said. The last few years, Nebraska’s been able to play man coverage and not have to worry about coverage. That’s allowed the defensive line time to make plays and to blitz safeties and linebackers to create havoc. With the lack of experience in the secondary, receivers have been open and it’s been difficult to manufacture pressure.
Jon: A little bit of scheme. Nebraska normally plays in the gaps and the defensive tackles are to plug holes, not necessarily charge up field. The idea is to avoid giving up big plays. It’s not just the secondary, though, the defensive line hasn’t been as good as advertised either.
MSU hasn't played in Lincoln since 1996. Please refresh us on the game day atmosphere.
Ricky: It’s red. Very red. Could be loud, but mainly red.
Mike: I don’t know how intimidating it’ll be...especially with an 11 am kick. But it’s typically a friendly affair. We’ll welcome your fans before the game, scream at each other during the game, and shake your hands afterwards. We’re just happy to have escaped the train wreck known as the Big XII, so we’re happy to be here, and awfully curious about the new surroundings.
Lastly, this is where I ask you for an obligatory key to the game and a prediction.
Ricky: If the Huskers can stop the run (never a given), then I think they have a chance. Cousins is good...really good...but he’s the kind of QB that the Husker defense - in years past - have feasted on. I think this is our defense’s breakout game. I’ll also be very, very interested to see what our OC, Tim Beck has cooked up for this game against this defense. It’ll be a fun one. NU-28 MSU-27.
Mike: I’m hoping there’s a letdown for Michigan State after defeating Ohio State, Michigan, and Wisconsin this month. But I can’t bet on that. And Nebraska’s been too inconsistent. Can Nebraska win? Absolutely. But my best guess? Sparty 34, Huskers 24.
Jon: Homer pick. Nebraska gets out to a fast start and forces Michigan State to play from behind. The Spartans make too many mistakes on the road, and Nebraska pulls out a win by pounding the ball away in the fourth quarter. Huskers 28, Spartans 24.