2011 Predictions & Game Story
Week 9 - Michigan State at Nebraska
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Michigan State (6-1) at Nebraska (6-1) Oct. 29, 12:00, ESPN/ESPN3
Here’s The Deal … Last week’s miracle win over Wisconsin was nice, but for all the craziness and for all the madness surrounding the finish, Keith Nichol’s Hail Mary touchdown play didn’t really matter. This game matters.
It’s a new world for the Big Ten, and while it’s tough to let go of the old school way of doing things, what’s important for the Spartans is to win the Legends division to go play in the inaugural Big Ten Championship. After already beating Michigan, and with Iowa, Minnesota, and Northwestern all nowhere near the same class as Wisconsin, a win over the Huskers could punch the ticket to Indianapolis. At the very least – and this is where beating the Badgers does matter – by winning out and going 11-1, no matter what happens in the title game, MSU could be headed for a BCS game.
Nebraska has hardly been anything impressive, getting stomped on by Wisconsin and struggling in the first half against Ohio State, but it’s a somewhat quiet 6-1 even with decent home wins over the Buckeyes and Washington. Now that Michigan State has all the juice after its big, splashy moment in the sun, Nebraska can all of a sudden make some national noise with a win.
There are still dates at Penn State and Michigan to deal with, along with home games against Northwestern and Iowa, so beating the Spartans would hardly assure a Legends title, but it would be a huge step forward. Considering how shaky the team has been, no matter how it’s sliced or analyzed, 7-1 would be an impressive start to life in the Big Ten.
The two teams have only hooked up three times, with Nebraska winning the last meeting 17-3 in the 2003 Alamo Bowl. As lifeless as that was for the Spartans, it was better than the 55-14 beating it took in Lincoln in 1996 and the 50-10 beatdown it grooved on in 1995. But the 2011 Huskers aren’t the mid-1990s version, and the 2011 Spartans are far better than they’ve been in recent years.
So quickly take the focus on what happened last Saturday night. This really might be like a playoff game.
Why Michigan State Might Win: Nebraska was the dream fit for Wisconsin. With so many problems throwing the ball, and with a banged up and ineffective defensive front, there wasn’t a better big game matchup for the Badgers in their 48-17 win. Nebraska might be an even better matchup for Michigan State.
Beyond the A-B-C aspect – Michigan State beat Wisconsin, Wisconsin beat Nebraska – the Huskers have to be balanced offensively, tough defensively, and air-tight in the secondary, and they’re not any of the three.
Montee Ball and the Badger running game barreled at times last week, finishing with 220 yards, but MSU still leads the Big Ten in run defense allowing just 89 yards per game. The defensive front it among the best in America; the linebacking corps doesn’t miss stops; and well timed blitzes have confused the best of quarterbacks, like Denard Robinson and Russell Wilson. Taylor Martinez isn’t the best of passing quarterbacks, and if the Spartans could turn Robinson into a pocket passer, and keep him to a 9-of-24 day and just 42 yards, they can do the same to Martinez.
Nebraska’s secondary got lit up by Washington’s Keith Price and Wisconsin’s Wilson, and MSU quarterback Kirk Cousins is a smart, effective passer who should be able to connect on third down throw after third down throw.
Why Nebraska Might Win: Lost in all the hoopla over the final play against Wisconsin was how the Michigan State defense collapsed. The Badgers might have stepped up their game, but the Spartans were also pulling off a mega-choke, unable to slow down the running game and ineffective at keeping Wilson from making big plays. If the Nebraska offensive line can get into a lather like it did against Ohio State, MSU could be on its heels.
Wisconsin was able to blast away with its offensive line early and then at the end, and while Nebraska doesn’t have anywhere near the same talent up front, it showed against the Buckeyes in the second half that it can clear the way for Martinez and Rex Burkhead to crank out yards in chunks.
On the other side, Michigan State is way too one dimensional. Le’Veon Bell ran well against the Badgers with 87 hard yards on 16 carries, but the ground game only finished with 109 yards. While the passing game worked and was great on third downs, 44 of the 290 passing yards came on the heave.
The Spartans usually aren’t the sharpest knives in the drawer when it comes to making mistakes, committing 13 penalties against Michigan and 12 against Notre Dame. However, when they focused, they didn’t screw up against the Badgers, failing to commit a penalty. Nebraska has been good at keeping the penalties to a relative minimum, and it hasn’t lose a fumble in three games and has just one interception in its last two games. At home in such a big game, a lot of the breaks MSU got against Wisconsin – it’s a break to not get hit with any flags – won’t be there.
What To Watch Out For: Against a defense as strong as Michigan State’s, field position will be at a premium and getting points whenever possible will be a must. That’s why junior Brett Maher could end up being Nebraska’s MVP if he has a strong all-around game punting as well as on field goals. With a huge leg and limitless range, he’s been good so far nailing 13-of-16 shots, while averaging 45.48 yards per punt. While he missed a 51-yard bomb against Minnesota, he nailed a 50-yarder against Ohio State while nailing four nice punts with two put inside the 20. Michigan State’s punting game is awful and the return game is merely average.
Michigan State sophomore corner Isaiah Lewis is becoming a factor. A week after putting Michigan away with a 39-yard pick six, he popped off about how Russell Wilson was going to get hit and hurt. On the first drive, Montee Ball did the pounding, popping Lewis and sending him to the sidelines. He came back to finish with six tackles and a key pick, and now he has four picks on the year while growing into a stronger open field tackler. A burgeoning star, he’ll be used in a variety of ways against the Huskers as a lockdown corner as well as an occasional blitzing pass rusher.
What Will Happen: The Nebraska home field advantage might help a little bit, but Michigan State’s lines are playing way too well. The Huskers don’t have a pass rush, and it’ll turn out to be a killer for a secondary that’ll get picked clean by Cousins. On the other side, the Nebraska offensive line isn’t going to have the success it’ll need to make this a game. Michigan State is the real deal, and it’ll prove by taking a stranglehold on the Legends.
CFN Prediction: Michigan State 27 … Nebraska 17
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Nebraska -4 O/U: 49.5
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