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November 3, 2012

Match-up watch: Michigan State

NU Run Offense vs. Michigan State Run Defense
It appears that Rex Burkhead won't be ready to go for Saturday's game, again leaving the NU rushing attack on Ameer Abdullah's shoulders. The sophomore has quietly posted back-to-back 100-yard games while getting more help from Taylor Martinez. Half of the quarterback's 100 rushing attempts this season have come in the past three weeks. Imani Cross received a couple of late carries against Michigan and the nicked-up Braylon Heard didn't see any. Judging by how NU has used its backs, don't expect many carries from either of them this weekend.

The Spartans' greatest strength is stopping the run. Opponents are rushing for just 91.2 yards per game and 3.0 yards per carry. Max Bullough leads the charge for MSU defensively and is one of the Big Ten's better linebackers. He will be aided by Denicos Allen, another playmaker in the linebacking corps.

The game may very well be decided depending on how this match-up goes - the league's No. 1 rushing offense vs. the No. 1 rushing defense. If the Huskers are able to establish their ground game and don't put the game solely on Martinez's arm, their chances of winning greatly increase.


NU Pass Offense vs. Michigan State Pass Defense
Last year, the Michigan State cornerbacks basically took NU's wide receivers out of the game. Kenny Bell registered just one catch and Quincy Enunwa was shut out. That isn't likely to be repeated this time around. The Husker receivers have taken on a much bigger load this season and are more critical to the offense than they were a year ago. With another year of experience under their belts, expect Bell, Enunwa and Jamal Turner to have a much greater impact this year.

The characters on the other side of the ball haven't changed either. Michigan State returned possibly the conference's best pair of cornerbacks in Johnny Adams and Darqueze Dennard. The Spartans are fourth in the Big Ten in passing defense and have picked off six passes this year. Throwing on them will be no easy task.

Martinez found that out the hard way last season as Michigan State frustrated him into a 7-for-13 passing day. Despite the hype surrounding William Gholston, Michigan State doesn't support a great pass rush. The corners will body up man-to-man on NU's receivers and dare Martinez to beat them through the air, something he struggled to do last year.


Michgian State Run Offense vs. NU Run Defense
Le'Veon Bell is an absolute load at tailback who is fourth in the conference in rushing. But he has just 145 yards on 47 carries over the past two weeks (3.1 average), a decrease in production that could be attributed to him wearing down from a heavy workload or the higher caliber of opponents Michigan State has seen recently. His numbers suggest he has feasted on the likes of Eastern Michigan, Indiana and Iowa while struggling against the Spartans' tougher foes.

Opposing him will be a defense that has had its ups and downs but is playing as well as it has all season long. Sean Fisher and David Santos are both coming off of breakout games and NU seems to play much better against pro-style offenses. Considering MSU quarterback Andrew Maxwell is no threat to run, the Huskers will be able to key on Bell.

All that being said, Bell is no slouch. The Spartans may have the Big Ten's worst rushing offense statistically, but their junior back is capable of putting up beastly numbers in any contest. Just ask Boise State - Bell ran for 210 yards against the Broncos in the season opener. Still, it's tough to pick against NU's defense when it's playing at this level.


Michigan State Pass Offense vs. NU Pass Defense
There's no arguing that Michigan State has sorely missed the steady play of the departed Kirk Cousins, but Maxwell has rebounded from some tough early-season performances. He has completed better than 60 percent of his passes in three of the Spartans' last four games and could be finding a bit of a rhythm. That being said, his numbers for the season leave plenty to be desired.

The Husker secondary has been hitting its stride over the past few weeks. Stanley Jean-Baptiste is starting to show the consistency that could make him a star on the outside and Josh Mitchell is expected to be fully healthy after missing much of the past two games with an injury. Nickelback Ciante Evans will likely be asked to play on the outside more, but he had no problem doing that against Wisconsin's Jared Abbrederis, who is better than anyone he will line up against this week.

One MSU receiver that could give NU problems is tight end Dion Sims, who has battled injuries this year. The junior is a mammoth 6-foot-5 and 285 pounds and had 23 catches in the Spartans first four games. He is expected to be 100 percent healthy now and will give the Huskers someone to watch out for on every play.


Special Teams, What If's and The X-Factor
Michigan State's return units are all pretty much in the middle of the pack in the Big Ten. Nick Hill is solid but unspectacular as a return man. Dan Conroy is inconsistent in the kicking game but has the leg to make some long ones. Though Conroy is just seven for 13 on field goals between 31 and 49 yards, he has connected on all three of his attempts of 50 yards or more.

The Nebraska special teams managed to avoid shooting itself in the foot last week and submitted a much better performance. Brett Maher unveiled a rugby punting style that helped him earn Big Ten Special Teams Player of the Week.

But the return game was still underwhelming, particularly on punts. Special teams coach Ross Els expressed frustration at his returners' cautiousness and thought the memories of the Northwestern game made his players a bit gun shy. Abduallah is a threat in the return game, but it's tough to trust him if he doesn't trust himself.


Nebraska Will Win If:

It can avoid the costly turnovers and penalties that have given it trouble at times over the past few seasons. Michigan State likely won't be able to consistently move the ball on the Blackshirts, so as long as Nebraska doesn't give the Spartans many short fields, it should be OK.

Michigan State Will Win If:

Maxwell is able to make the Huskers respect the passing game instead of focusing on Bell and the defense puts forth a Herculean effort that includes a few critical turnovers.


A trip to Indianapolis is on the line for one of these teams. Both have confidence after rousing victories last week, but the Huskers control their own destiny in their effort to reach the Big Ten title game. While Michigan State isn't eliminated from contention, they would need to win out and get plenty of help. The Huskers have seem more zoned in than usual during the past few weeks and that should play in their favor.

Prediction: Nebraska 16, Michigan State 10

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