Lincoln, Neb. — Michigan State and Nebraska don't have a long history of playing each other, but ever since the Cornhuskers joined the Big Ten in 2011, the series has developed an edge.
Nebraska won the first two meetings, capped with a come-from-behind win in East Lansing in 2012. The Spartans, however, have captured the last two, including at home last season when they led by 24 entering the fourth quarter and held on for a 27-22 victory.
Things had already started to get a bit chippy heading into that game, but it was amped up afterward when the Huskers accused the Michigan State defense of clapping to throw off the snap count. It was something quarterback Tommy Armstrong Jr. was still talking about in late July at Big Ten media days.
"They're one of those teams that prides itself on toughness, putting their hand in the dirt and trying to run the ball," Michigan State center Jack Allen said. "They pride themselves on having a strong defense and we'll see on Saturday.
"I feel like (the games) have always been chippy. They've got good, athletic guys and big guys up front. So it gets competitive out there but it's always fun. I think we will be ready to go as a team. We're all excited coming off the bye week. Our legs are fresh and guys are flying around, but it's gonna be a good next couple of weeks."
The intensity between the teams when they kickoff at 7 Saturday is only one intriguing aspect. When the No. 6 Spartans look at the Huskers this season — a team that has suffered tough loss after tough loss while dealing with multiple injuries — they see themselves.
The 2012 version of themselves, is the most prevalent. It was that season that Michigan State lost five Big Ten games by a total of 13 points. One of those was a 28-24 loss to Nebraska, a game the Spartans led in the fourth quarter.
Before last week's loss at Purdue, Nebraska had lost five games by a total of 13 points.
"I kind of compare them to our 2012 team," junior linebacker Riley Bullough said. "We lost a lot of close games but still had a lot of great players on the teams. Things haven't always gone their way, so they'll definitely be fired up. But we're gonna be fired up and it will definitely be a fun game."
Michigan State finished 6-6 in the regular season in 2012 and had to win their final regular-season game at Minnesota to become bowl eligible. For Nebraska to avoid missing a bowl game for the first time since 2007, it will have to win all of its three remaining games.
It has created a team, the Spartans believe, that will come out fighting.
"You just know they're gonna come out with a burning passion to want to win," senior defensive end Shilique Calhoun said. "They're doing everything right and then it's coming down to the last couple of plays. … We've been in that position before and we understand that sometimes things don't go your way. But if you win your individual battles you can win the game."
For Calhoun and the defense, that means contending with Armstrong, who is expected to play after missing last week's game with a turf to injury. He'll put pressure on the Spartans with his feet, but he can throw the ball, too. He's in his third year as the Huskers' starter and has thrown from 2,052 yards and 16 touchdowns this season.
"He can throw the ball and he creates," Michigan State linebackers coach Mark Snyder said. "And when he creates, he can still throw the football. A lot of guys that create and they're on the move, they lose something off their ball or they're not as accurate. That's not this kid. He creates, even to his left. He can spin the football and throw money darts."
Even with the struggles the Huskers have had this season, they're not about to lay down for the Spartans.
"They're definitely a beatable team," Nebraska wide receiver Jordan Westerkamp said. "We're going to have a great game plan this week and we'll be ready for them."
Nebraska certainly has ready been in the past, and it will not only be motivated Saturday to turn its season around, but it will be looking to hand the Spartans a loss that almost certainly will end their playoff hopes.
"There's nothing like having a team that's undefeated, in the top 10 in the nation, coming in and get a win off of that," Armstrong said. "We're going to prepare as much as we can, do as much as we can as a whole to prepare and just put ourselves in the right situation to win a game on Saturday."
It's exactly what the Spartans are counting on.
"This will be a dogfight, there's no doubt," Snyder said. "Going there again in a hostile environment. … their backs are against the wall so we'll get their best shot, as we have every week. I'm new here but we've gotten everybody's best shot. Every week. And that's what happens when you're the hunted. It comes with the territory and it's a great thing."