36F Spartan Stadium, East Lansing, MI
Some solid defense has helped Nebraska gain control of its fate in the Big Ten Legends Division. Coach Bo Pelini, though, is quick to dismiss that notion.
Facing a stout Michigan State defense this weekend is likely one reason why.
Making their first visit to East Lansing in 17 years, the 21st-ranked Cornhuskers go for a third straight victory Saturday when the Spartans try to avoid their first three-game home losing streak since 2006.
Since yielding 498 yards in a 63-38 loss at then-No. 12 Ohio State on Oct. 6, Nebraska (6-2, 3-1) has limited its last two opponents to 489 total yards and 10 of 35 on third-down conversions. The Cornhuskers enjoyed their best defensive performance of the season in last Saturday's 23-9 victory over then-No. 20 Michigan, holding the Wolverines to a season-low 188 yards - 52 after halftime.
"(The defense has) come a long way," defensive coordinator John Papuchis said after the Cornhuskers had a season-best three interceptions. "By no means is today perfect. That's the fun aspect of this job - coming to work and trying to get better."
Pelini will continue to stress that message even though the Cornhuskers have moved into a first-place tie with Michigan in the division and now hold the tiebreaker.
"I don't buy into any of that," he said when asked if Nebraska was in the driver's seat in the Legends.
Pelini, though, is a big believer in the Spartans' defense. And with good reason, as Michigan State (5-4, 2-3) is fifth in the FBS with 267.4 yards allowed per game and 10th with an average of 15.0 points allowed following last Saturday's 16-13 overtime win at Wisconsin.
The Spartans held the Badgers to 190 total yards and 19 on the ground.
"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."
Michigan State's seventh-ranked run defense, allowing 91.2 yards per game, could cause problems for a Cornhuskers' ground game that may be without senior Rex Burkhead (knee) for a second consecutive game. Burkhead ran for 130 yards and finished with three touchdowns - two rushing - in a 24-3 win over Michigan State on Oct. 29, 2011, in the teams' first meeting as Big Ten opponents.
If Burkhead can't go, sophomore Ameer Abdullah and dual-threat quarterback Taylor Martinez will get the bulk of the carries. They have a combined 1,177 rushing yards and 14 TDs.
"(The Spartans) are going to play hard, so early success on early downs will be key," Abdullah said.
Slowing down Le'Veon Bell is going to be a point of emphasis for Papuchis' unit, as the Michigan State junior is 15th in the nation with 117.9 rushing yards per game. Bell finished with 77 yards last Saturday and caught his first career TD to tie the game with 1:08 left in regulation.
"He is a beast. He runs the ball hard," Cornhuskers safety P.J. Smith said. "So we've got to get gang tackles on him. You just can't go out there and have arm tackles on him. We've got to put our shoulder into him and wrap up."
If Nebraska can succeed in doing that, Michigan State will likely need another solid performance from junior quarterback Andrew Maxwell or risk dropping three straight in East Lansing for the first time since a five-game slide Sept. 23-Nov. 11, 2006.
The Spartans have struggled to score with Maxwell under center - they rank 108th in the FBS with 19.2 points per game - but the first-year starter showed plenty of poise last weekend, completing 9 of his last 11 passes and finishing with 216 yards and two TDs after hitting Bennie Fowler for the game-winning score.
Michigan State was coming off its first set of back-to-back league losses since 2009, with the defeats coming by a total of five points.
"I think every football team has a defining moment and we've been searching for that moment thus far this year - you know, a point in time where we had to come of age a little bit," coach Mark Dantonio, whose team can become bowl eligible with a win, told the Spartans' official website. "I'm just really happy for Andrew Maxwell and Bennie Fowler, and really happy for our football team. We're learning how to play under pressure, I will say that."
Nebraska has won all six matchups against Michigan State, including 50-10 in its only previous visit to East Lansing in 1995.