EAST LANSING, Mich. — There’s intrigue involved whenever an unstoppable force meets an immovable object in college football.
That’s what will happen Saturday afternoon, when Nebraska (6-2, 3-1 Big Ten) visits Michigan State (5-4, 2-3) for a Legends Division showdown.
The Cornhuskers lead the conference in scoring (39.3 points), total offense (489.1 yards) and rushing (264.1 yards) per game. Dual-threat quarterback Taylor Martinez has a hot receiver in Kenny Bell, and dangerous tailbacks in powerful Rex Burkhead and elusive Ameer Abdullah.
The Spartans’ defense paces the Big Ten in scoring (15.0 points), total offense (267.4 yards) and rushing (91.2 yards) per game. Middle linebacker Max Bullough is relentless, defensive end William Gholston has big-play capabilities, and cornerbacks Johnny Adams and Darqueze Dennard supply the one-on-one coverage that allows for constant blitzing.
What will happen when they clash?
“It’s going to be a great game and fun to watch,” said Chris Spielman, the Ohio State and Detroit Lions linebacker legend who will serve as analyst for the 3:30 p.m. (ET) game on ABC-TV. “I was hoping to get this game, and think it will be close.
“I don’t expect it to be a Big 12-type, high-scoring game. Nebraska is explosive, but Michigan State’s defense is awfully good and well coached by (coordinator) Pat Narduzzi. I don’t think the score will reach the 30s.”
The Spartans have allowed more than 20 points only once, and that was in a 31-27 win at Indiana.
The Cornhuskers, No. 20 in the BSC standings, have scored between 23 and 73 points in every game.
“Michigan State can play man, zone, blitz and create a lot of mental errors for offenses,” Spielman said. “They have good players, plenty of depth and play physical.
“I began seeing improvements in Nebraska’s offense late last year, and this year in Taylor Martinez’s ability to throw. He’s playing with so much confidence and can make nothing into something — and I mean something big.”
Martinez had a 92-yard run against UCLA and a 68-yard touchdown pass to Bell against Idaho State. He’s thrown for 1,781 yards and run for 461 more. Martinez needs 115 yards to surpass 2001 Heisman Trophy winner Eric Crouch’s school total offense record of 7,915 yards.
“In terms of Taylor Martinez, he’s very, very much the same type of caliber of football player that Braxton Miller is and Denard (Robinson) is,” Spartans coach Mark Dantonio said. “They’re the number one offense in the league right now.
When you take into consideration who is running that, who is creating some plays, doing the different things that they’re doing, he’s right there with them.”
Although Ohio State’s Miller and Michigan’s Robinson are superior runners, Martinez is not far behind them.
After improving his footwork in the offseason, he’s better than any other passer in the conference. He leads the Big Ten in passing efficiency (158.1) and shares the conference lead with 16 touchdown passes with Penn State’s Matt McGloin.
MSU will blitz him, as they do everybody.
“We have to create pressure points for him, like he creates pressure points for us,” said Dantonio.
But there’s far more than Martinez to this offense.
Nebraska has three runners who average more yards per carry than MSU’s 1,000-yard rusher, Le’Veon Bell (4.3 per carry). Burkhead (8.6), Abdullah (5.6) and Martinez (4.6) each can go the distance.
“I don’t know how much Burkhead will play,” said Spielman, alluding to the left knee injury that has cost Burkhead three starts and has him listed as “day-to-day” by Nebraska. “But Ameer is fast and explosive.”
Burkhead rushed for 1,371 yards and 17 touchdowns last season, but has been limited to 405 yards. No matter, Abdullah has rushed for 716 yards and eight touchdowns.
Bullough, a Butkus Award semifinalist, will orchestrate the effort to contain them all.
“He plays hard,” Nebraska coach Bo Pelini said of Bullough. “He’s a winner and he plays the game the right way. I think he’ll play on Sundays.”
Bullough leads the Spartans with 77 tackles and has 10 big-impact plays (sacks, interceptions, pass breakups, quarterback hurries and forced fumbles).
MSU corners Adams and Dennard must be able to handle Nebraska receiver Bell and others one-on-one to allow blitzing.
“Those two compete for the ball and challenge your receiver,” Pelini said. “They’re a good tandem.”
Keep in mind that MSU’s offense — with improving quarterback Andrew Maxwell and tight end Dion Sims complementing tailback Bell — and the Huskers’ defense will have something to say about the outcome. Nebraska leads the Big Ten with 24 sacks, and defensive end Eric Martin has 6 ½ sacks to go with eight quarterback hurries.
The rivalry has its roots tied to Nebraska coach Bob Devaney. He won national titles in 1970 and ’71 in Lincoln following four seasons assisting Spartans coaching legends Clarence “Biggie” Munn and Duffy Daugherty.
MSU is 0-6 against the Huskers and has been outscored, 205-37, in the series. Nebraska was the only Big Ten team to beat the Spartans last season, by a 24-3 score.
“It was the one Big Ten team we didn’t play well against,” Dantonio said, “and our team wants to atone for that.”
Will the immovable object be enough against the unstoppable force?
“I don’t know,” Spielman said. “All I can predict is that it will be some game.”