East Lansing, MI (SportsNetwork.com) - A top 25 battle is on tap in the Big Ten on Saturday evening, as the 10th-ranked Michigan State Spartans play host to the 19th-ranked Nebraska Cornhuskers at Spartan Stadium.
Bo Pelini's Cornhuskers are a perfect 5-0 on the young season, including a 1-0 record in league play thus far. Four of the five victories have come by double digits, including last weekend's 45-14 rout of Illinois.
Mark Dantonio's Spartans couldn't keep pace with the explosive Oregon Ducks in Eugene in week two (46-27), but closed out non-conference play with a pair of lopsided victories over Eastern Michigan (73-14) and most recently, Wyoming (56-14). This is the Big Ten opener for MSU.
Nebraska has dominated the all-time series, winning seven of the eight meetings with Michigan State, including both meetings in East Lansing. The Spartans finally got in the win column in this series last year in Lincoln (41-28).
The Cornhuskers have a bona fide Heisman Trophy candidate in tailback Ameer Abdullah, who has been dominant in the first month of the season, including a 208-yard, three TD performance last week against Illinois.
One the season, Abdullah leads the nation in rushing yards (833 yards) and ranks second in rushing yards per game (166.6 ypg). The senior tailback is averaging a hefty 7.3 yards per carry and is responsible for eight of the team's 16 rushing scores to date.
Abdullah is the workhorse in the backfield, but certainly not the only 'Husker producing. Sophomore quarterback Tommy Armstrong Jr. is averaging 84.0 yards per game on the ground. He is also a serviceable passer, completing 53.9 percent of his throws, for 1,052 yards and 10 TDs.
Wide receivers Kenny Bell (19 receptions, 389 yards, two TDs) and Jordan Westerkamp (16 receptions, 316 yards, three TDs) are the top threats downfield.
Pelini likes what he sees from his offense thus far, but sees room for improvement as the Big Ten schedule moves forward.
"It's a good formula if we play cleaner ourselves," said Pelini following the win over Illinois. "There were times we didn't play very clean. At the end of the day, if you want to be a great football team, which we're not yet, you have to have high standards. We do. That's what we hold our guys to. And believe me, I take a lot of things statistically. But the stats don't win football games. We have a lot of things we need to keep going and get better at as a football team."
With the offense generating over 570 yards per game, the Nebraska defense hasn't had to be super stingy. The team is allowing 19.0 ppg, while yielding 331.6 ypg.
Sophomore safety Nate Gerry leads all Nebraska defenders with 30 total tackles, adding 4.0 TFL, 1 INT and 1 FF to his stat line. Junior defensive end Randy Gregory (17 tackles) has been a force upfield, leading the team with 4.5 sacks.
Michigan State presents a formidable offensive opponent with the ability to move up and down the field both by the run and the pass. The Spartans ranks third nationally in scoring (50.3 ppg) and 18th in total offense (515.0 ypg), netting 252.0 ypg on the ground and 263.0 ypg through the air.
While MSU lacks a bell cow like Abdullah in the backfield, but senior RB Jeremy Langford is capable, averaging 5.5 ypc and leading the team with 340 yards and three TDs.
Junior quarterback Connor Cook has been extremely efficient, completing 69.2 percent of his passes, for 837 yards, with nine TDs and just two INTs. His 192.3 passer rating ranks third nationally.
Senior wideout Tony Lippett (6-3, 185) is the primary target in the passing game, leading the team in receptions (22), receiving yards (421) and TD catches (6).
The Spartans are not the defensive force they were a year ago, although judgement should be reserved since the numbers are still a bit skewed from the Oregon game. The team is allowing just over 20 points per game, but opponents are averaging just 289.0 yards of total offense per outing, good for 11th nationally. With 15 sacks and 12 forced turnovers in the first four games, this is a still a unit that makes big plays.
The MSU secondary is a strength, featuring playmakers like safeties R.J. Williams (team-high 19 tackles, 1 INT) and Kurtis Drummond (15 tackles, 2 INTs). A third of linebacker Ed Davis' tackles (12) have come behind the line of scrimmage, including three sacks.
Dantonio has high praise for Drummond and his leadership on defense.
"He's been an All-Big Ten player. He's been a catalyst for our defense and a catalyst for our secondary and he's a player coach, really. He has great relationships with our coaches as well. Outstanding young man, everything that you want in terms of a player, a work ethic guy, preparation off the field, really a good person."