Spartans host Huskers in crucial Big Ten matchup

After all the big, era-defining victories Michigan State earned last season, a November win at Nebraska is often overlooked.

Spartans coach Mark Dantonio remembers, though.

”We looked at it as a program win, because we needed to go to a place like Nebraska where we didn’t have a lot of fans in the stands and they had a ton and be able to play and play well, and that was accomplished,” said Dantonio, whose team went on to win the Big Ten title and Rose Bowl.

Michigan State’s 41-28 victory at Nebraska last year was the Spartans’ last major hurdle en route to the Legends Division title. The Big Ten realigned after that, and the teams are in different divisions now, but a lot will still be on the line Saturday night when the 10th-ranked Spartans host the 19th-ranked Cornhuskers.

Michigan State (3-1) has rebounded from its loss at Oregon and still holds hopes of reaching college football’s new four-team playoff. The Big Ten has taken some criticism for its early-season performance, so if the Spartans are going to impress the nation, this matchup with one of the league’s other ranked teams is important.

Nebraska (5-0, 1-0) didn’t look great while struggling against McNeese State a few weeks ago, but the Cornhuskers beat Miami and routed Illinois.

A win this weekend would give Nebraska its first 6-0 start since 2001.

”Historically it doesn’t really mean that much to me. This is about this team and what we’re trying to accomplish,” coach Bo Pelini said. ”Obviously it’s extremely important, but every game we play is going to be. I’m not going to make any more of it than what it is.”

The Huskers haven’t beaten a top 10 opponent on the road since Washington in 1997.

Here are a few things to watch when Michigan opens its Big Ten title defense against Nebraska:

RUNNING WILD: Behind star RB Ameer Abdullah, Nebraska is ranked second in the nation in rushing offense. Michigan State is fourth in rushing defense. In last year’s matchup, Abdullah ran for 123 yards.

SHOOTOUT?: Last season, Michigan State showed it could win a big game without a dominant performance from its defense. Jeremy Langford ran for 151 yards and three touchdowns to offset a solid offensive performance by Nebraska.

”We’ve had some success, but they’ve had some success, too. I mean it’s all about who executes on any given day,” Pelini said. ”They’re very well coached. I don’t worry a lot about what’s happened in the past or anything like that. It’s about what’s going to happen Saturday night and how two football teams are going to play that Saturday night.”

QB MATCHUP: Michigan State’s Connor Cook has become one of the Big Ten’s top passers, but Nebraska’s Tommy Armstrong has cut down on his interception rate – a crucial factor in allowing his team’s productive running game to flourish. Armstrong doesn’t expect the Spartans to make any major adjustments before this one.

”Honestly I think they’re going to run what they’ve been running all season,” Armstrong said. ”It worked for them last year. They won the Big Ten by just playing their basic defense. They don’t change for anybody.”

FULL STRENGTH: Nebraska DE Randy Gregory has 4 1/2 sacks over the last two games after being slowed earlier by a knee injury. He is also occasionally used as a blitzing linebacker.

TRICKY: One of the key plays of last year’s victory over Nebraska was a fake field goal that Michigan State holder Mike Sadler turned into a first down. Dantonio has been willing to try a few tricks in big games in the past, and the Cornhuskers will need to be alert, especially on special teams.