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A Trip to Michigan State Presents Nebraska a Game It’ll Think It Should Win… But Don’t Overlook Sparty

July 15, 2021

Nebraska is only weeks away from opening fall camp for the new year, and as the clock ticks closer to the 2021 season, we’re giving brief looks at each opponent on the schedule for the Huskers. Already covered: IllinoisBuffalo, and Oklahoma. Michigan State is up next.

The Boring Info

Time: Kick time and TV designations haven’t yet been set for this weekend. Nebraska is traveling to East Lansing for a Sept. 25 game against the Spartans, and that weekend features Notre Dame-Wisconsin already in the Big Noon slot on FOX as well as Tennessee-Florida, Texas A&M-Arkansas, Louisville-Florida State, and a few other interesting SEC matchups. Seems likely Nebraska would be headed for an early-day time slot on BTN. 

Line: A line has yet to be set in this game. ESPN’s two data systems view this game very differently, though. FPI gives the Huskers just a 38.3% chance to win the game, and has the Spartans ranked ahead of the Huskers in its preseason projection model. SP+, which has historically been kind to Nebraska under coach Scott Frost, flips the odds. On a neutral field, SP+ would have the Huskers favored by nearly 10 points.

Records: Michigan State went 2-5 last season, with its two wins coming against Michigan and then-No. 8 Northwestern. Wild, right?

Series history: Nebraska leads the all-time series 9-2, and 4-2 since joining the Big Ten in 2011. The last meeting was a 9-6 barnstormer in the snow that Husker fans and coaches remember fondly. Surely the same can be said of the win prior to that game as well, when Nebraska scored 13 points in the last four minutes of the game to stun the seventh-ranked Spartans 39-38 at home.

What This One Means

Don’t expect the same kind of atmosphere as either of those two games, though. Michigan State is head-on into its rebuild under second-year head coach Mel Tucker and Nebraska is to a point where looking bad in a game like this will make for a pretty toxic environment. 

The Spartans were what one would expect from a team thrust into their particular circumstances last season: woefully inconsistent. Sometimes maddeningly so. 

Tucker replaced the retired Mark Dantonio in February of 2020 and had just a few weeks to recruit to his style before a 15-month recruiting lockdown went into place. The Spartans didn’t get a spring period to mesh with the new coaching staff. Key players contracted COVID and didn’t look up to their usual standards during the season. 

When Michigan State was on, it looked pretty decent. You have to play a clean game to beat Northwestern at its best, and MSU played well enough in a late November meeting with the Wildcats to hand them their first loss. 

But when Michigan State was off, it struggled to do much of anything. It opened the season with a double-digit loss to Rutgers and closed it with a double-digit loss to Penn State. In between were blowouts at the hands of the big guys in the league—52-12 to Ohio State, 49-7 to Iowa, 24-0 to Indiana. 

The defense played well enough and enters the new season projected to be strong once again; SP+ rates them as the 18th-toughest group in the country for the new year, one spot ahead of Nebraska. Antjuan Simmons, the team’s leading tackler by a mile last season, is off to the NFL, and his loss will probably be felt early on in the season while new guys get acclimated, but there were four Power Five transfer additions made in the front seven this offseason that could help bridge the gap. 

Tucker does defense well, and that was true even last season when Sparty was flying by the seat of its pants. MSU stopped the run well on a per-play basis (29th nationally in yards per carry, adjusted for sacks), generally kept teams off-schedule (39th in success rate), and limited the chunk plays (16th in explosive play rate). They need to be better at getting to the quarterback and creating those splash plays, but the baseline upon which to build was a pretty good one last season.

The problem, to put it bluntly, was the offense sucked.

MSU averaged 18 points a game. 

They couldn’t sustain drives. They had the seventh-worst success rate in the country (33.1%) and when they fell behind the chains they gave up sacks at an alarming rate. In seven games, they turned the football over 20 times. Their running backs didn’t break tackles and their line, according to Football Outsiders, created the fourth-fewest yards of any in the country.

In short-yardage rushing situations they were bad and ball-carriers got stuffed at or behind the line of scrimmage on over a quarter of their carries.

That’s the part that will have to change. MSU brought in Anthony Russo, a grad transfer quarterback from Temple, this offseason to compete with returning sophomore Payton Thorne, but Russo has 32 career interceptions to his name. Thorne had to play in blowouts and chase games when last year’s starter wasn’t getting it done. MSU has a few receiving targets that offer intrigue, but the guy getting them the football needs to be in better situations. 

Having a competent defense should help that, though the offense can’t shoot itself in the foot. (Sound familiar?) 

In reality, this game could be a toss-up between two teams still very much in a rebuilding phase. Or, because on paper Nebraska seems the slightly more talented side, NU could match SP+’s expectations. This will be a game both teams feel like they’re capable of winning and neither will feel good about dropping.

The Guy to Know

Kenneth Walker III looks to be the guy in Michigan State’s backfield. He’s a transfer into the program by way of Wake Forest and offers some immediate upside for the group. While the entire Spartan backfield produced one rushing touchdown last season, Walker had 13 for the Demon Deacons. The touchdown production was remarkable, actually, considering he only touched the ball 119 times. (That’s a score every nine touches.) Walker has good vision and hits the cutback with regularity. In two years as a reserve back, he put up 1,158 yards at 5.3 a pop. 

The Number(s) to Know

Sparty’s points-per numbers were abysmal. It averaged 18 yards per point, the seventh-worst mark in the country. It averaged 2.5 points per scoring opportunity (trips inside the 40), the sixth-worst mark in the country. And it averaged 1.3 points per drive, the fourth-worst mark in the country. Tucker’s group had to scratch and claw and grind for every single point it got, which were already few and far between. Given the defense’s quality, this will probably serve as the health check for the program next season. If these numbers are better, Sparty will be in most of its games. 

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