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Two-Minute Drill: Key matchups that will decide Nebraska-Michigan State
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Two-Minute Drill: Key matchups that will decide Nebraska-Michigan State

Sam dishes on his three keys for the Huskers vs Michigan State.

Each week, the Two-Minute Drill provides an in-depth breakdown on all the key matchups that will decide a winner in the Husker game. Today we look at what Michigan State brings to the showdown with Nebraska.

* * *

WHEN NEBRASKA RUNS THE BALL

The blocks have to be cleaner. Nebraska has allowed 6.25 tackles for loss per game, tied with UConn for 82nd in the country. Nobody wants to be tied with UConn. But the running backs need to show more, too. The Huskers don’t break tackles or juke defenders enough. As a result, three players have led the position group in carries through four games. The only player to do it twice, Gabe Ervin, is out for the year. Against Michigan State, which has allowed seven rushes of 10-plus yards through three games, somebody has to make a play. EDGE: MICHIGAN STATE

WHEN NEBRASKA THROWS THE BALL

Michigan State forced four turnovers by Miami quarterback D’Eriq King last week — two fumbles, two interceptions. The Spartan safeties have good ball skills. Adrian Martinez has committed two turnovers through four games, though. And the Spartan corners are susceptible downfield. They’ve allowed 10 pass plays that gained 20-plus yards. MSU coach Mel Tucker gave Miami plenty of room to throw underneath last week. No Oliver Martin hurts, but Nebraska’s receivers have proven they can win downfield without him. If Martinez’s turnover troubles are behind him (big if), and if the struggling offensive line can sustain long enough for Martinez to find open receivers (bigger if), Nebraska wins this matchup. EDGE: NEBRASKA

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WHEN MICHIGAN STATE RUNS THE BALL

Grab the popcorn and chew thoroughly. You might gag on it watching Kenneth Walker. Walker leads the nation with 493 rushing yards and ranks second with 6.53 yards after contact per carry. When he’s not breaking tackles, he's outrunning defenders. Walker is dangerous when he plants his foot. A lot of his best runs come off cutbacks, which means the Huskers have to remain disciplined even if they don’t think Walker is coming their way. If they can swarm Walker before he makes his cut, they’ll be thrilled with the results. Problem is, no one has contained Walker yet. And Nebraska, which allows 4.34 yards per carry (94th), hasn’t played like it’ll be the first. EDGE: MICHIGAN STATE

WHEN MICHIGAN STATE PASSES THE BALL

Tackling will be key. Michigan State thrives on quick passes — especially screens. Tight end Connor Hayward is a former running back and sells his fake blocking stance well. Receivers Jayden Reed and Jalen “Speedy” Nailor are dynamic with the ball. Both are capable of winning deep, too, if defenses cheat forward to stop Walker. That’s where Nebraska is most likely to get beat. If the Huskers slow Walker while playing honest, however, they’ve proven they can defend the pass. Defensive coordinator Erik Chinander wasn’t thrilled with Nebraska’s tackling against Oklahoma, but the Sooners’ longest play gained 23 yards. Maybe Nebraska’s pass rush can make an impact this week? The Spartans block on runs better than on passes. EDGE: NEBRASKA

SPECIAL TEAMS

Michigan State's Connor Coghlin is 2 for 5 on field goals this season, and this category still isn’t close. Nebraska has already changed punt returners this season. William Przystup might soon take the punter job from Daniel Cerni, and Big Ten kicker of the year Connor Culp, who’s missed five of his past six field goals, can’t have much slack left, either. Zero disasters would be a win for the Huskers' special teams, and they haven’t proven they can accomplish that yet. EDGE: MICHIGAN STATE

INTANGIBLES

The sloppy ceiling on this matchup is pretty high. As much as Nebraska spent the week bemoaning penalties, the Spartans actually average 7.5 more penalty yards (62 compared to 54.5) per game. Playing at home will help them and hurt Nebraska, though. The Spartan fans will know that Nebraska was bothered by noise at Oklahoma, and they’ll be pumped to cheer for a ranked team in a primetime slot. As our own Evan Bland wrote this week, Nebraska’s penalties have trended problematic before and during Scott Frost’s arrival. The Huskers have to prove they’ll buck that trend before fans believe it. EDGE: MICHIGAN STATE

KEY MATCHUP

How effectively Nebraska defends Walker will determine a lot. If the Huskers add to his highlight reel, the defense will wear down and the offense won’t have much time to find a rhythm. If they can slow him, however, they’ll force Payton Thorne into new territory. His numbers — 62.3% completions, 729 yards, nine touchdowns and zero picks — are impressive, but he hasn’t faced much adversity. Throwing when you want to and when you need to are drastically different. MICHIGAN STATE

OUR TAKE

Running the ball matters in the Big Ten. Michigan State runs well; Nebraska doesn’t. What’s more, the Spartans contained King’s scrambles effectively last week (12 carries, 7 yards). Martinez is a better runner, but the Huskers can’t keep relying on him to make up for the running backs’ shortcomings. To win this game, Nebraska needs to defend Walker effectively, block better than it has all season and correct self-inflicted errors. Maybe it can do one or two of those things, but all three? On the road? Tall order. MICHIGAN STATE 28, NEBRASKA 24


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