Right off the back of the most affecting loss of head coach Scott Frost’s tenure, Nebraska has another stark challenge in the form of No. 20 Michigan State.
In recent years, a once-dominant Spartans team had been cut adrift, but the team looks poised to make a comeback. After winning three games on the bounce, one a tour de force against a ranked Miami (FL) team last Saturday, Michigan State has entered the AP Top 25 once more, and looks to emerge from the packed Big Ten East.
A game against a quietly resurgent team like the Huskers may be the perfect opportunity for Michigan State to begin its march through the rest of the season, with only Big Ten play ahead of it.
Here’s some players to watch for Saturday evening’s matchup:
Kenneth Walker III, RB:
Junior running back Kenneth Walker III is Michigan State’s maestro on the field, and provides a unique challenge to Nebraska’s defensive setup.
Over 57 rushing attempts in the season thus far, Walker III is averaging 8.6 yards per carry. He has managed five touchdowns rushing, while also notching a receiving touchdown. Against Miami, he managed 6.4 average yards on 27 carries in total.
The Wake Forest transfer is a superstar, and also exactly the kind of player who may be able to crack the Nebraska defense. Against Oklahoma, the Huskers thrived on a defensive scheme which prevented the team’s air raid offense from flourishing, but in response, the Sooners presented a developed run game. This proved problematic for Nebraska, with junior running back Eric Gray managing 5.6 yards per carry on 15 carries.
Nebraska defense’s strength so far this season has been primarily tactical, for one, but also rests in its secondary and linebacking crew. Comparatively, the defensive line has been serviceable and broadly mistake-free, but against the strength of Walker III, the crew faces its greatest threat.
At the same time, it won’t be the exclusive purview of the defensive line to stop Walker III. The likes of senior linebacker JoJo Domann and sophomore linebacker Luke Reimer will undoubtedly have a role to play as well. That being said, they may have their hands full.
Payton Thorne, QB:
Sophomore quarterback Payton Thorne has had a blazing start to the year. After having limited play through last year’s season, Thorne earned the starting spot for the Spartans and has thenceforth proved his mettle.
This wasn’t necessarily apparent from the start, however, as the Naperville, Illinois native hit only a single touchdown against Northwestern in the Spartans’ season opener while completing 60% of his passes.
This blip was corrected emphatically, however, against Youngstown State. Throne hit 71.4% of his passes against the Penguins and dropped four touchdowns in the process, averaging 13.3 yards per pass. This is less impressive, though, than the performance which followed it.
The week after bossing the Penguins, Thorne went on to repeat the feat against then-ranked Miami. Thorne completed 58.1% of his 31 attempts while scoring four touchdowns in the process.
Just one of either Walker III or Thorne would pose a significant challenge for the Huskers, but the two together present a rather severe scheming headache for defensive coordinator Erik Chinander. Especially because the two operate in largely separate theaters, and what may cover one look will likely not cover another.
Drew Beesley, DE:
Nebraska’s offensive line is bad.
Even ignoring the penalties and other mistakes which haunt the unit, Nebraska’s offensive line is problematic because it’s just not very good at blocking. Early on in the season, that problem was most apparent on the running end, where the Huskers’ running backs simply weren’t given room to operate. That same problem has become increasingly apparent in pass protection as well.
Junior quarterback Adrian Martinez was sacked five times against the Sooners. Now, in all fairness, Oklahoma is a great defensive team, but this obvious weakness in Nebraska’s game only became more obvious after last Saturday’s matchup.
Michigan State senior defensive end Drew Beesley had a slow start to the season. He only managed three solo tackles against Northwestern and missed the game against Youngstown State. However, he bounced back against Miami, and managed two sacks.
Beesley’s quickness as a defensive end will prove problematic against freshman left tackle Turner Corcoran, who has had mixed fortunes in his starting role so far this season.
At the same time, much of Beesley’s success or failure may be predicated on his ability to exploit the gap between Corcoran and whoever starts at left guard, a spot that’s been near-disastrous for the Huskers so far this season.