Landon Wirt, senior sports editor: Nebraska 23, Michigan State 20
As we sit close to a month into college football’s regular season, I truly believe that Nebraska’s Week Zero loss to Illinois was an extreme outlier in the Huskers’ season thus far.
Against the Fighting Illini, Nebraska repeatedly burned itself with self-inflicted errors, looked lost offensively and failed to adjust defensively to Illinois’ gameplan. The self-inflicted errors are still present within multiple units on Nebraska’s roster, but the slow-and-steady erasure of the latter two issues are why I believe Nebraska can win in East Lansing, Michigan on Saturday.
Firstly, Nebraska has developed into a sound offensive team. Junior quarterback Adrian Martinez is having a great statistical season, boosted by a talented group of wide receivers and tight ends. The accomplishments of senior wide receiver Samori Toure and junior wide receiver Omar Manning are well-documented, but the recent surge of the Huskers’ tight ends might be what pushes Nebraska’s offense to the next level.
Junior tight end Austin Allen, a truly massive target standing at 6-foot-9, has been hampered a bit with a head injury but has emerged as one of Martinez’s most reliable targets. Allen is averaging over 33 yards per game, but even that comes with a major disclaimer as he left with an injury following his first reception against Buffalo on Sept. 11.
Allen caught six passes for 43 yards last weekend against Oklahoma and could be in line for another productive outing on Saturday if Michigan State opts to take away Nebraska’s playmaking wide receivers. Allen is complemented by fellow junior tight end Travis Vokolek, who made his 2021 debut against the Sooners.
Vokolek made his lone foray into the passing game count with a huge 38-yard reception on a well-designed play by Nebraska’s offense, which helped set up a Husker touchdown. In addition, Vokolek saw 39 total snaps against Oklahoma and helped out significantly in the running game.
Nebraska’s defense, meanwhile, has rebounded nicely since allowing 30 points to Illinois — a point total an opponent has yet to reach against Nebraska since. Holding the Sooners to just 23 points was impressive in its own right, but for the purpose of Saturday’s opponent another defensive effort from this season stands out.
The No. 20 Spartans boast one of the best running backs in college football, junior Kenneth Walker III, who currently leads the nation in rushing yards. When Nebraska was tasked with slowing a similar offensive style down against Buffalo, who currently ranks 17th nationally in rushing yards per game, defensive coordinator Erik Chinander’s unit excelled.
Buffalo senior running back Kevin Marks Jr., is perhaps not on the same level as Walker, but slowing him down to just 85 yards on 21 carries is an impressive feat nonetheless.
Nebraska may not completely limit Walker’s effectiveness on Saturday, but I am confident that the Huskers can slow him down enough to force a largely untested quarterback in sophomore Payton Thorne to make plays with his arm. I’m not confident in his ability to do so, and I think Nebraska’s defense can make him uncomfortable enough to force several momentum-swinging plays.
Ultimately, in a game I feel could be decided by a few points, I’m expecting Nebraska’s revamped offense and tenacious defense to overwhelm Michigan State, boosting the Huskers to their first signature victory of Frost’s tenure.
Jason Han, assistant sports editor: Michigan State 27, Nebraska 20
There’s a basic relationship which concerns me most when it comes to this matchup. At its core, Michigan State has two primary offensive weapons, which can operate largely independent of each other, in Walker and Thorne.
If Thorne is producing, he can do so even if Walker is having a bad game. The inverse is true as well. While it is of course the case that there is surplus value to the offensive function, which is to say Thorne producing will help influence the defense into ignoring Walker, there is no common breakage which affects both like Nebraska’s offensive line.
So, Nebraska has to choose one to stop. There is no all-in-one defensive look which will prevent both, so one area of focus will need to be highlighted. There’s logic to either decision, though.
If the Huskers choose to stop Thorne, it will be because of how strong their secondary is. After a number of impressive performances, Nebraska’s secondary has proven itself to be one of the team’s sharpest edges, and focusing on the same kind of scheme which proved so effective against Oklahoma can all-but shut down Thorne on the night.
However, even the likes of the Sooners, a team with a run game that’s not stellar, were able to near-dominate the Nebraska defensive line. With a superstar running back like Walker lining up in the opposite backfield, it seems like a bad idea to just let the defensive line deal with him.
That being said, selling out to stop the run also comes with its set of problems. It shifts the primary responsibility from the line to the secondary. And though Walker is good, the potential for explosivity is always more latent in passing than it is in the run game.
So this boils down to who Chinander trusts more: the secondary or the defensive line. While there are good arguments for both, the cruelty is that there’s also a right answer, and this uncertainty lends itself to believing the Spartans will win Saturday.
Martin Herz, assistant sports editor: Nebraska 31, Michigan State 27
This may sound weird, but I like Nebraska’s chances on the road this Saturday. Although past games are no predictors of the future, there is a weird history between Michigan State and Nebraska since the Huskers joined the Big Ten in 2011.
Since 2011, the Huskers are 3-2 against the Spartans when Michigan State is ranked in the AP Top 25, a pretty odd record considering Nebraska’s recent history against any ranked Big Ten opponent. Nebraska even won a ranked game on the road in East Lansing, Michigan, winning 28-24 in 2012 against the then-No. 20 Spartans.
For once, history is on Nebraska’s side when it comes to beating a team in the Big Ten. However, history alone isn’t going into my prediction. The Huskers wide receiver room is starting to gel, excelling last Saturday against Oklahoma despite Toure having little involvement.
The offense is hitting explosive plays, having 25 such plays through four games, coming through a variety of passing and Martinez gashing defenses on the ground. The Spartans defense may have limited dynamic Miami senior quarterback D’Eriq King to a pedestrian afternoon last weekend, but Martinez poses a different challenge due to the weapons he has.
The major concern comes with Nebraska’s defense, which will be asked to limit Walker and Thorne. Good offense will be plentiful for both teams, but Nebraska’s veteran defense should get one more stop than the Spartans.
Although the Huskers defense has struggled with generating pressure, their linebacker play can make up for a lack of push. With history on his side and having the more experienced defense, Frost has an opportunity to finally earn his ranked victory of Nebraska tenure.
Well, that’s the case unless the special teams commit a comical error yet again.