EAST LANSING, Mich. — Blame it on the weather.
Nebraska and Michigan State will kick off a straightforward, backyard slugfest on Saturday at 2:30 p.m. CDT at Spartan Stadium.
Slobberknocker. Low on glitz. A game that will be won — or lost — in the trenches.
November in the Big Ten presents the sort of climate for which Michigan State is built.
“We've had driving rain, high winds, cold temperatures … you name it,” said George Blaha, who's done four decades of Michigan State radio play-by-play.
Blaha has watched nearly every Michigan State coach — from Duffy Daugherty in Blaha's first year calling games to Mark Dantonio — feature some form of running game that could pull the Spartan cart through any weather condition.
It's just common sense in the Big Ten to build a team like that to win in the money month of November.
“Mark Dantonio grew up in Ohio and coached in the MAC and coached in the Big Ten, both at Michigan State and Ohio State and now back at Michigan State,” Blaha said. “I think he knows that if you want to throw the ball 50 times a game, you're probably not in the right league, because the weather's just not going to cooperate. And it just so happens that Mark is a smash-mouth football kind of guy anyway.”
So the Spartans will be giving Nebraska a heavy dose of 244-pound tailback Le'Veon Bell on Saturday, pleasant afternoon or not. And Nebraska, similarly conscious of time and place, will be answering with a run game of its own — a run game the Huskers know will be crucial to their success down the stretch.
NU head coach Bo Pelini, who previously has made trips through the Big 12 and SEC, said running well in November is important regardless of whether you're in places where the snow might fall, the skies might turn gray and the wind might blow passes off the mark.
“I think that — period — running the football late in the year is a premium,” said Pelini, who grew up in Big Ten country and played safety at Ohio State. “You need to be able to do that. You need to be physical on both sides of the football.
“When you get past week eight, physicality is at a premium.”
To be sure, Nebraska (6-2, 3-1 Big Ten) and Michigan State (5-4, 2-3) go into their Legends Division matchup with the stats to prove they were serious about running the ball in September and October, too.
Nebraska leads the Big Ten and ranks No. 7 nationally in rushing offense at 264.1 yards per game. Michigan State is well behind at 131.2, but Bell already has 247 carries and is one of four 1,000-yard rushers in the Big Ten.
Where MSU really thrives is stacking up against the run, leading the Big Ten and ranking No. 7 nationally in rushing defense by giving up just 92.3 yards per game (3.0 per carry).
Dantonio said his belief in the ground game is as much a state of mind as it is a safeguard against winter weather.
“I think regardless of where you're at, the ability to run the ball figures into ultimately how successful you can be as a football team,” he said. “It takes time off the clock. It allows you to be successful in a tough-weather situation. It makes a statement in terms of your physicality. All those things.”
Conversely, Dantonio said he wanted to build the Spartan program around stopping the run as well. That has helped Michigan State win seven straight November games and build a 13-3 record in the month under the sixth-year head coach.
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“That was patterned after the people that I had been involved with, whether it was Nick Saban or Jim Tressel or Glen Mason,” Dantonio said. “That run-first mentality was there offensively, and it was more than just a stat. It had a mind-set to it.”
A year ago in November, Nebraska ran for 166 yards at Penn State and 222 against Iowa in two wins. It managed just 122 yards rushing against Northwestern and 138 at Michigan in a pair of losses.
None of those games was played in extreme conditions, but NU offensive tackle Jeremiah Sirles said that shouldn't matter.
“I think running the ball, no matter where you are, has to be important to you,” Sirles said. “Running sets up so many things. It sets up the pass game because it gets people in the box. It sets up the play-action game and gets people to bite on it.
“If you can have a solid run game, it's going to open up other things for the offense.”
Sirles said the NU running game against the MSU rushing defense will be like a heavyweight fight. You just keep punching. You'll win some and you'll lose some.
“It's all about want-to,” Husker I-back Ameer Abdullah said. “The talent's there on both sides of the ball. It's all about who's going to match the intensity, who's going to come out harder, who's going to come out swinging.”
The backdrop will be better than on most November Saturdays in East Lansing. The forecast calls for temperatures in the mid-40s, a modest north wind and only a slight chance of rain.
But it's still November, and that means the stakes are high, said Blaha, the Michigan State radio announcer.
“The saying in golf,” he said, “is you drive for show and you putt for dough, and those early games are for show and these games in November are for dough — when sunny spots in January are on the line.”
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