Nebraska to give Michigan State defense a tough test
East Lansing — There are certainly big games to come for Michigan State, especially those within the East Division of the Big Ten.
But this week’s matchup with No. 19 Nebraska might be the most intriguing.
Last season’s victory by the Spartans was their first ever over the Cornhuskers and Nebraska is already talking about atonement after it feels it gave away the game last season, turning the ball over five times despite moving the ball against the top defense in the Big Ten.
“We saw ourselves beat ourselves, honestly,” said quarterback Tommy Armstrong, who had three turnovers by himself. “I feel like this year is going to be totally different. We have to take care of the football, run our offense and make sure we make plays.”
On his weekly teleconference on Sunday evening, Michigan State coach Mark Dantonio chose to hold off on any specific discussions about Nebraska, instead deciding to focus on the play of his team over the first four games and where it sits heading into Big Ten play.
The offense has been impressive while the defense has been susceptible to the big play, including in Saturday’s 56-14 victory over Wyoming.
But heading into the stretch against familiar teams can help.
“Obviously we have a little bit of experience playing those teams for the most part,” Dantonio said. “So there is some history there and that history counts as far as knowing their personnel and things of that nature. Every team is different every year and how they use their people.
“Secondly, it starts here. You can do whatever you want out of conference, but inside the conference there is more on the line. I just think that’s the way it is and certainly our first game Nebraska is a big one.”
And it will come against one of the best in terms of personnel as senior running back Ameer Abdullah is coming off a 208-yard outing in a victory over Illinois.
He also was the first back to go over 100 yards against Michigan State last season, picking up 123 yards as the Huskers gained 182 as a team.
“Overall, when you’re playing a great running back it’s about pursuit, it’s about leverage on the football and it’s about being able to tackle in space,” Dantonio said. “He is very difficult in all those areas. He, along with others in the conference, that’s what it comes down to — pursuit angle, proper leverage and tackling in space and we will work on those three things this week, as we do every week.”
It will certainly be a test for the defense, which was hit by big plays again in the win over Wyoming, including a 57-yard touchdown run.
But Dantonio believes a lot of those issues were shored up at halftime on Saturday. He also thinks any panic over the defense — which is fifth in the nation, allowing 71.7 yards rushing per game — is a bit unwarranted.
“We have been spoiled by some of the things from last year,” Dantonio said. “There’s gonna be breakdowns, there’s gonna be things that happen. What’s important is that we get them fixed and that it’s not happening on a consistent basis where we lose a football game and give up 400-500 yards of offense.
“Everybody understands we lost some great players and we also understand there will be new wrinkles thrown at us and we have to adjust on the fly. Everybody has good players and everybody has good coaches and they’re going to gear up and attack the opposing team. It’s rapid moving and there’s a lot of change every week and we have to adjust.”
The Spartans could get some help this week on the defensive front as junior tackle Damon Knox and fifth-year senior tackle James Kitterdge will practice.
Knox dressed for the first time this season against Wyoming but did not play while Kittredge missed his third game.
“We are pretty much up to speed in those areas (injuries),” Dantonio said.
“I think we’ll be at full capacity this week, but those two guys I’m not sure.”
Full strength or not, the season gets serious this week and plenty of questions will be answered.
“The question you have to ask is, did we play up in some of (the first four) games or did we play down to the level of competition?” Dantonio said. “I think we played up in every respect. That’s a football team coming out and getting the job done. Those things we can control.
“There will be tests next week and the weeks that follow. You ask about identity and in these weeks, the coming times, we establish our identity.”
Nebraska at Michigan State
Kickoff: 8 p.m. Saturday, Spartan Stadium, East Lansing
Records: Nebraska 5-0, 1-0 Big Ten; Michigan State 3-1, 0-0
Line: Michigan State by 7
Series record: Nebraska leads 7-1 (Michigan State 41-28, Nov. 16, 2013)