Coming off the heels of a 23-16 loss to then-No. 3 Oklahoma, Nebraska goes back on the road to East Lansing, Michigan. There, the Huskers play a rejuvenated Michigan State program that is ranked for the first time in two years.
Michigan State, now No. 20 in the country, has already taken down two Power Five teams with relative ease, with both of those wins coming on the road. Saturday marks Michigan State’s first full-capacity conference home game since 2019, and one with hype not seen in a long time.
Here’s what to watch for in Saturday’s much-anticipated showdown:
An unlikely quarterback duel
Nebraska and Michigan State boast some of the nation’s most effective quarterbacks. Nebraska junior quarterback Adrian Martinez and Michigan State sophomore quarterback Payton Thorne are both top 10 in QBR, ESPN’s all-encompassing quarterback metric statistic.
Saturday marks the first game of the season between two top-10 quarterbacks in QBR but that’s not where the fun stops.
This is an early-season quarterback matchup flying under the radar due to the nature of the two teams. Neither quarterback is pegged as a Heisman Trophy candidate, nor the face of great programs, but both excel at their job.
In Martinez’s case, his improvement as a passer comes with a much more dynamic receiving corps. As seen against Oklahoma, Martinez likes to air it out when his receivers can streak down the field.
Senior wide receiver Samori Toure leads the receiving unit, but that’s not to diminish the production of others. Junior wide receiver Omar Manning, now fully healthy, made several big plays against Oklahoma, while freshman receiver Zavier Betts has proven to be a deep threat in his collegiate career thus far.
Another surprise from just a year ago is that both passing offenses are not only competent, but are capable of burning opposing defenses.
Kenneth Walker III vs the Blackshirts
Against Oklahoma, Nebraska put all of its focus into stopping the explosiveness of the Sooners’ offense. That worked, as sophomore quarterback Spencer Rattler struggled at times to make the right decisions, and the Sooners were held to just 21 offensive points.
The style of defense favored by Nebraska last weekend, a soft zone look, also put the Huskers’ run defense at a distinct disadvantage right away. That was seen through either less players in the ‘box’, box being how many players are lined up within the confines of the offensive line, or having players further off the line of scrimmage when seven or eight players were in the ‘box’.
Oklahoma ran for 159 yards on 29 carries, including several key runs on the eventual game-sealing drive.
In East Lansing, Michigan, Nebraska’s defensive philosophy will have to change again. Michigan State junior running back Kenneth Walker III leads the nation in rushing yards with 493 yards over three games.
Walker not only leads the nation in rushing yards, but also is one of the best at maximizing efficiency on his 57 runs.
Defensive Coordinator Erik Chinander’s challenge is to see how he handles an offense much different from Oklahoma.
What defensive personnel Nebraska wants to line up against the Spartans is another factor to consider.Two distinct possibilities include either going with more size on the defensive line to stop Walker, or alternatively focusing on containment of the outside and keep Walker between the hashes.
So far, Chinander has proven he can scheme for different types of offenses such as Buffalo, and then Oklahoma. His philosophy or defense scheming will be instrumental in how the Huskers handle Walker and pulling off the upset.
While the rest of the special teams have started to somewhat improve their play, the kicking unit remains on a nose dive, and needs correction fast.
The kicking situation has grown dire fast for Nebraska. Senior kicker Connor Culp, the 2020 Big Ten Kicker of the Year, has gone 3-for-8 on field goals to start the 2021 campaign along with two missed extra points.
This week, Nebraska travels to a hostile Big Ten environment where it will need its kicking unit to perform exceptionally well. On Monday, Scott Frost put the kicker spot back up for grabs and Culp may not be the one taking kicks in Lansing.
The open competition is reminiscent of that of 2019, where eventually six kickers attempted a field goal. The ugly kicking from 2019 may force Frost to roll with a kicker
Mel Tucker v. Scott Frost
This should be an exciting match if it goes similarly to the last time these two coaches met. In Boulder, Colorado, then-Colorado head coach Mel Tucker pulled off a 17-point comeback to beat Frost’s No. 25 Nebraska squad in 2019.
That game marked the last time Nebraska was ranked. Now, Tucker leads the ranked opponent, while Frost plays the role of spoiler to a potentially magical season for Michigan State.
The coaches have history between one another, and a decent amount of players remain from that 2019 Huskers team. For Frost, beating Tucker would be by far his best road victory of his Nebraska tenure. A ranked victory would also mark Nebraska's first such victory on the road since 2011.
This game can be a turning point for either program, with Michigan State showing legitimacy as a Big Ten power, or for Frost, finally notching his first marquee win of his tenure at Nebraska. On the other hand, a win for Tucker would make him 2-0 against Frost and sink the Huskers even further in the Big Ten.