LINCOLN — Mel Tucker laid out his vision for Saturday four minutes before taking a question.
The start of his weekly press conference wasn’t about fundamentals or position breakdowns. The second-year Michigan State coach repeatedly referred to Spartan Stadium as “The Woodshed” — a moniker that had been losing traction with the fan base in recent years. He encouraged students to arrive early as part of a stripe-the-stadium effort with alternating sections of green and white.
Tucker noted that Nebraska will receive its allotted 2,500 tickets. He asked fans not to let that number grow, perhaps remembering the Big Red takeover from his last home game against the Huskers when he was Colorado’s coach in 2019.
“I don’t expect there’ll be one more Husker body in the stands than that,” Tucker said. “We’ll be Spartans and we’ll be loud and we’ll be getting after it.”
What looked a month ago like a sleepy morning kickoff between two aspiring middle-of-the-pack Big Ten programs has suddenly become a supercharged showdown under the lights. No. 20 Michigan State (3-0, 1-0 Big Ten) is coming off a road win against a ranked Miami team. Nebraska (2-2, 0-1) took Oklahoma to the wire as a three-touchdown underdog last weekend.
Both teams are inspired, as much as either has been in years. If their outlooks were cheesy motivational posters, each has traded “Hang In There” for “You Can Do It!”
Teamwork, indeed, makes the dream work.
Nebraska’s optimism can be partially rooted in positive reinforcement against the Spartans. Their last matchup — a 9-6 Husker win in 2018 that included three fourth-quarter field goals in snowy Lincoln — is arguably Scott Frost’s best victory in three-plus seasons.
Nebraska has dropped 24 of 26 games against top-10 opponents the past two decades, but those exceptions have both come against Michigan State (2011 and 2015).
A win Saturday would be the Huskers’ most impressive in years, perhaps since beating No. 22 Oregon in 2016. They know they can do it if they bottle up the good from the Oklahoma game and minimize the bad. Another crisp performance from quarterback Adrian Martinez and the Blackshirts. Fewer penalties and more takeaways. Anything from special teams.
“Right now we’re playing Michigan State in the Big Ten championship,” tight end Austin Allen said. “That’s how I’m treating it this week.”
NU has a chance to snap a 0-for-13 schneid against ranked Big Ten teams since the 2015 MSU upset. That night, Tommy Armstrong found Brandon Reilly down the Memorial Stadium sideline for a 30-yard touchdown that video review upheld after Reilly went out of bounds and came back in — officials said he was forced out. NU celebrated a 39-38 win over the No. 6 team that would eventually qualify for the College Football Playoff as fans danced in the stands to DJ Kool’s “Let Me Clear My Throat.”
Most of their six meetings as Big Ten members have been memorable. Nebraska’s 28-24 win in 2012, when Taylor Martinez found Jamal Turner for a 5-yard touchdown with six seconds left. The 2014 encounter of top-20 squads when MSU held off a furious Husker rally to prevail 27-22 in East Lansing.
This one is a rare night stage for the Huskers, who have had kickoffs at 2:30 p.m. or earlier for 16 of their past 17 games. It has some extra spice, too, including a pair of former Nebraska assistants (Ted Gilmore and Ross Els) and a coach in Tucker who dealt the Huskers one of their most painful recent defeats (2019 overtime loss at Colorado). NU even has a Spartan defector in transfer punter William Przystup.
“Can’t wait to see a few friends there, can’t wait to see some of the specialists,” Przystup said. “But also can’t wait to kick some butt.”
Tucker said excitement around Michigan State has been “organic,” not forced, based on the 3-0 start. No one in the country is averaging more rushing yards per game (164) than Spartans running back Kenneth Walker, one of college football's budding stars. And nobody has scored more than 21 points on the defense yet.
As Tucker likes to say, Michigan State is much more meat and potatoes than French pastry. Can the Huskers hang with the Spartans starch for starch?
“They don’t do a lot of things really, really fancy — they just do it really well,” Nebraska defensive line coach Tony Tuioti said. “And the running back executes it to perfection.”
Said Martinez: “They’re a hell of a team.”
And NU outside linebacker Garrett Nelson: “Good for (Walker). Obviously, you can’t have that on Saturday.”
Las Vegas oddsmakers consider MSU a five-point favorite. Nebraska begins tipping down a roller coaster of five ranked opponents in eight straight Big Ten games. A win keeps it on track for bowl eligibility and tickles the imagination for what else might be possible in the coming months. A loss ups the October intensity and depletes the goodwill built during the last few weeks.
The motivation for Nebraska is evident. The stakes are clear. Will the progress be, too?
“When you look at Michigan State, as long as I can remember, it is a black-and-blue physical team,” Frost said. “So we know we are in for a fist fight when we go up Saturday night. It is going to be a fun environment.”