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Game Preview: Nebraska Cornhuskers vs. Michigan State Spartans

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Michigan State v Nebraska Photo by Steven Branscombe/Getty Images

The No. 20-ranked and undefeated Michigan State Spartans (3-0) host the Nebraska Cornhuskers (2-2) for a prime-time kickoff (7 p.m. Eastern Time) at Spartan Stadium, also known as “The Woodshed.” The game will be broadcast on FS1 and MSU fans will be “Striping The Stadium,” with alternating green and white sections throughout Spartan Stadium (those in even sections are to wear green, while those in odd sections and the student section will wear white).

Michigan State is coming off of a huge win on the road over the then No. 24-ranked Miami Hurricanes, and so far has exceeded expectations from even the most optimistic of MSU fans. Nebraska, on the other hand, just suffered its second loss of the season already, but played a hard-fought game against No. 3-ranked Oklahoma in Norman.

The Cornhuskers always play the Spartans tough, and have dominated the overall series. Can Nebraska upset Michigan State in East Lansing? Let’s preview the contest.

Tale of the Tape

Michigan State:
2021 Record — 3-0 (1-0 in Big Ten)

2021 Offense (per game averages) — 520 total yards, 256.3 passing yards, 263.7 rushing yards

2021 Defense (per game averages) — 381.3 total yards allowed, 269.3 passing yards allowed, 112 rushing yards allowed

2021 Cumulative Points Scored: 118 (39.3 ppg)

2021 Cumulative Points Allowed: 52 (17.3 ppg)

Current SP+ Ranking: 40th

Nebraska:
2021 Record — 2-2 (0-1 in Big Ten)

2021 Offense (per game averages) — 484 total yards, 280.25 passing yards, 203.8 rushing yards

2021 Defense (per game averages) — 346.3 yards allowed, 190 passing yards allowed, 156.3 rushing yards allowed

2021 Cumulative Points Scored: 118 (29.5 ppg)

2021 Cumulative Points Allowed: 63 (15.75 ppg)

Current SP+ Ranking: 39th


Series History/All-Time Records

All-time head-to-head record: Nebraska leads 9-2
Current streak: Nebraska with a two-game winning streak
Last Michigan State Win: Oct. 4, 2014
Last Nebraska Win: Nov. 17, 2018
Michigan State all-time record: 713-470-44 (.599)
Nebraska all-time record: 907–402–40 (.687)


Uniform Watch:

Michigan State will go with the always popular “Block S” logo on the helmet. The helmets also feature numbers on both the front and back this week. The Spartans will rock white pants with green tops. There is white numbering and lettering on the jerseys, and the sleeves have a diagonal-striped pattern on them as well.

A closer look at this week’s threads:

Nebraska has not yet announced its uniform combination for Saturday, but it is probably safe to assume the Cornhuskers will wear white tops with red lettering, and red pants. I’m sure we’ll see the classic white helmet with the red Nebraska “N” logo as well.


Previous Game Results

Michigan State 38, Miami 17

Michigan State went down to Miami as nearly a touchdown-underdog, and walked out of Hard Rock Stadium with a 21-point victory over the Hurricanes. This was the game many MSU fans had circled on their calendars in the early season, and a game many believed was going to be a loss three or four weeks ago. Getting a dominant victory on the road, in the south Florida heat and humidity, proved that the Spartans are for real this season.

Quarterback Payton Thorne threw for 261 yards and four touchdowns, while running back Kenneth Walker III shredded the Miami defense with 27 carries for 172 yards (6.4 yards per carry) and a receiving touchdown. Walker also forced a ridiculous 20 missed tackles against the Hurricanes, which was the most by any college football running back in Week Three.

The MSU defense played a “bend-but-don’t-break” style, where the cornerbacks gave Miami’s wide receivers — particularly Charleston Rambo — a lot of cushion and often gave up 10-plus-yard completions, but forced four turnovers and held the Hurricanes to just 17 points. This was a statement victory for the Spartans.

Oklahoma 23, Nebraska 16

Oklahoma is a tough team to beat, and Nebraska — particularly on defense — was able to challenge the Sooners. But the Cornhuskers couldn’t quite get the job done. Oklahoma struck first on a Spencer Rattler rushing touchdown, and then Nebraska answered with a field goal. Rattler then threw a one-yard touchdown pass to Jeremiah Hall to take a 14-3 lead. Adrian Martinez later found the end zone on a rushing score for the Cornhuskers, but Oklahoma would block the extra point attempt and return it for two points, making the score 16-9 in the Sooners’ favor near the end of the third quarter.

Oklahoma would add another touchdown in the fourth quarter as Kennedy Brooks scored a rushing touchdown. Nebraska would get on the board again with 6:15 to play, as Adrian Martinez found Omar Manning for a 21-yard touchdown strike. Once Oklahoma got the ball back, however, the Sooners were able to drain over five minutes off of the clock, and the Cornhuskers did’t get the ball back until there was only 1:03 left to play in the game. Nebraska could not score to tie the game before time ran out.

The Sooners led the whole game, and the Cornhuskers never truly threatened, but it was an admirable job by the Nebraska defense, holding Rattler and the high-powered Oklahoma offense to just 23 points.


Key Matchups

Adrian Martinez versus Michigan State defense: Similar to Miami’s D’Eriq King last week, Martinez is a dual-threat with his arms and legs (he leads Nebraska in rushing, and of course passing), so the whole Michigan State defense needs to be focused on containing Martinez and limiting explosive plays. Martinez is also a veteran presence who has been with the Nebraska program for seemingly forever, as he has been the Cornhuskers’ starting quarterback since he was a true freshman in 2018. He has been prone to some turnovers and mental mistakes in the past, but has seemed to clean a lot of those errors up so far in 2021. The MSU defensive unit (and the raucous crowd at “The Woodshed”) need to try to rattle Martinez a bit and force him into some bad decisions and mistakes.

Samori Toure versus Ronald Williams/Chester Kimbrough: Toure, a transfer from Montana where he was an FCS All-American, has given the Cornhuskers an explosive play-maker at wide receiver. Whoever is matched with Toure at cornerback — Williams or Kimbrough (or potentially Kalon Gervin) — needs to limit the big plays from the 6-foot-3, 190-pounder. Last week against Miami, the MSU defense allowed a lot (maybe too much) cushion to the Hurricanes’ wide receivers. Some of that was probably by design from the coaching staff, but if the “bend-but-don’t-break” philosophy is the case again this week, Toure, and possibly Omar Manning, could be in for big days in the passing game.

Kenneth Walker III/MSU offensive line versus Nebraska front seven: Kenneth Walker III is always going to show up in this “Key Matchups” section until defenses prove they can stop him. Walker leads the nation in total yards (493), yards after contact (372) and missed tackles forced (35). The Nebraska defense is strong overall, allowing under 16 points per contest and just 190 yards per game through the air, but the Cornhuskers are more average against the run, allowing 156.3 yards per game and 4.34 yards per rush. The MSU offensive line has played with noticeable improvement this year, and this game will once again be decided in the trenches. Walker’s success will be the key to a fourth-consecutive Spartans’ victory.


Game Info

Time: 7 p.m. (Eastern)
TV Channel: FS1
Location: Spartan Stadium, East Lansing, Michigan
Weather expectations: Mostly cloudy with rain showers in the morning and high temperatures around 66 degrees for the day. Temperatures around 60 degrees at kickoff, with winds blowing west/northwest at five-to-eight miles per hour.
Line: Michigan State -5


Overview:

There is a lot going on in this game that doesn’t have much to do with what will actually be happening between the whistles during the game on Saturday: Michigan State is ranked for the first time since 2019; Thorne won Big Ten Co-Offensive Player of the Week and the Manning Award Quarterback of the Week; fans will be striping the stadium; MSU will be honoring its 2021 Athletics Hall of Fame class during the game; and the Spartans will also be honoring the memory of late Spartans, Mike Sadler (punter) and Mylan Hicks (defensive back/linebacker), as well as former Nebraska punter Sam Foltz, prior to the start of the game.

As for on the field, this is actually a pretty interesting matchup. Nebraska’s defense is only allowing 15.75 points per game, while Michigan State is averaging 39.3 points scored per game, and has put up at least 38 points in each of the first three contests. The Nebraska pass defense is a strength, and as mentioned, only allow 190 yards per game through the air (and just 5.7 yards per passing attempt). Kenneth Walker III is going to need to have another strong game on the ground to open things up for Payton Thorne, Jayden Reed and Jalen Nailor in the passing game, because the secondary for the Cornhuskers is going to be up to the task.

Defensively for the Spartans, it will be interesting to see if the unit continues to bend, not break. If so, Adrian Martinez and the Nebraska offense may move the ball with ease, but Michigan State will do its best to keep the Cornhuskers off of the scoreboard, which is the goal after all. But personally, I would like to see less explosive plays through the air, the defense containing Martinez when he scrambles and continued dominance against the run. Nebraska will make a few big plays, no doubt, but MSU has to limit the number of those it allows.

Michigan State looks like the better team on paper, but Nebraska has quite frankly owned the head-to-head series. I see a close game throughout, but I think Michigan State pulls away in the fourth quarter and pulls out the victory.

For more on Nebraska, check out our “Get to Know the Opponent” piece, or read our Q&A conversation with Corn Nation — SB Nation’s website for all things Nebraska Cornhuskers. For my discussion with Corn Nation, read here.

Poll

Which school wins this Big Ten divisional crossover battle?

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  • 19%
    Nebraska
    (27 votes)
  • 80%
    Michigan State
    (112 votes)
139 votes total Vote Now