When Nebraska’s 2021 football schedule was released, not many would have initially pegged the Michigan State game as a matchup that would act as mile marker for determining the Huskers’ season trajectory.
Was this game going to tell us how long the season will be, or how short and exciting? Time flies when you’re having fun. Not so much when you’re losing.
But things have changed since then.
The Spartans weren’t supposed to be 3-0 to start. Second-year head coach Mel Tucker’s Spartans were expected to be in rebuild mode after a massive roster reconstruction that has seen around 20 transfers enter the program in the offseason. But yet, here Michigan State is, standing strong with an undefeated record, a No. 20 ranking in the AP Top-25 and a star transfer running back in Kenneth Walker III who’s leading the nation in rushing yards and becoming a household name in the college football world while doing so.
It wasn’t supposed to be this way. Most figured Michigan State to be, well, not undefeated and definitely not ranked on Sept. 25. Nebraska, in year four of the Scott Frost era, was supposed to beat an Illinois team that had a first-year coach and then hop on a plane for East Lansing with a 3-1 record following a lopsided, embarrassing loss on national TV to Oklahoma (that’s not how it turned out of course, the Huskers went blow for blow with the Sooners and ultimately left Norman impressing a bunch of folks).
But thanks to Tucker’s style and the fact that Saturday will be the Spartans’ first night game since September 2019, things have ratcheted up. After Michigan State’s win at then-ranked Miami, Tucker, unprompted, brought up the fact that Nebraska requested about 2,500 tickets for the game in his postgame presser.
“I wouldn’t expect there’d be one more Husker body in the stands than that,” Tucker said. “It’ll be all Spartans. It’ll be loud and we’ll be getting after it. It should be intense, it should be deafening—I anticipate that.”
Tucker has seen up close what Husker fans are capable of doing to an opposing stadium. Remember all the red that was at Folsom Field in Boulder when he was coaching Colorado? Looked like game day in Lincoln.
Tucker doesn’t want a repeat of that day, though he’d happily take the end result of the actual game in a heartbeat. He wants the Michigan State crowd to pack Spartan Stadium and color coordinate so it looks like one big bowl of green and white stripes. It’s hard to tell the future, but considering how Husker fans travel, Spartan Stadium is going to look more like a Christmas tree with all the red, green and white.
Thanks to Michigan State being ranked, it being a night game and Tucker reaching back in the past to call Spartan Stadium “The Woodshed”—a nod to former Michigan State offensive line coach Pat Ruel— it’s clear that this once middling game on the schedule has morphed into a massive game for Frost and Nebraska.
If the Huskers keep stacking strong performances like they have—Fordham, Buffalo and Oklahoma all produced positives—and get out of East Lansing with a victory, things will start looking up for Nebraska. It’d be 3-2 with momentum heading into a winnable night game of its own the following week against always-competitive Northwestern, which is 1-2 and hosts Ohio today.
If Nebraska falls on the road, it’s going to feel like a punch in the gut from prime Mike Tyson. The Huskers lost to Oklahoma, but no one can deny they played their tails off and showed good things that can be built on. Lose to the Spartans and dip to 0-2 in the Big Ten slate and all that momentum is thrown out the window. Then you have to turn around and play Pat Fitzgerald and the Wildcats, who are 3-1 in the last four contests against the Huskers.
Tucker said this is going to be a double-mouthpiece game––Big Ten football with Big Ten hitting. Tucker has a deliberate, thoughtful delivery in front of a mic. He seems to chose his words wisely. He’s confident in his team, and why wouldn’t he be after so many said the Spartans wouldn’t accomplish what they have through three games.
Some have tried to poke holes in Michigan State’s résumé, saying the Spartans’ two wins over Power 5 opponents, Northwestern and Miami, weren’t that impressive because, well, Northwestern and Miami might be bad football teams. Nebraska and its fans will find out how good Michigan State is Saturday.
Last week at Oklahoma, the Huskers didn’t have anything to lose. This week is a different story.