Published February 05, 2015
Michigan State has done the expected, blasting three outmanned opponents and losing as a double-digit underdog at Oregon.
Now, the No. 10 Spartans (3-1, 0-0 Big Ten) expect tougher challenges, beginning next weekend with a visit from No. 19 Nebraska (5-0, 1-0), the league's only unbeaten team.
"Nebraska has a very explosive offense," Michigan State coach Mark Dantonio said after Saturday's 56-14 win over Wyoming. "You've got to tackle well in space. You've got to be lined up right, first of all. You've got to play to a high tempo. Our fans need to get ready because Nebraska is coming to town. They need to be game-ready by 8 o'clock Saturday night."
The Spartans were ready for everything Eastern Michigan and the Cowboys threw at them the past two weeks, bouncing back from a 19-point loss to the Ducks and winning by a combined score of 129-28.
With 13 touchdowns in the first halves of those games, Michigan State's starters were diamond-cutter sharp, allowing almost everyone with a helmet to see playing time.
By the end of their final pre-conference game, the Spartans had scored 201 points, a school-record average of 50.3 for August-September, and accounted for 27 TDs on offense. That triples their total from 2013 when they finished third in the nation at 13-1.
"All I constantly ask our football team to do is come ready to play," Dantonio said. "We want your heart and your soul. We want energy and doing the best we can. Sometimes, things are going to fall our way. Sometimes, they're not. But I've been always been very, very proud of our effort, our toughness and the way we go about our business here."
The Spartans meant business last fall, becoming just the second Big Ten team and the first in 30 years to beat nine conference opponents, all by double digits. Michigan State's only game in its last 14 decided by less than 10 points was a 24-20 upset of Stanford in the Rose Bowl.
"I think we have some good momentum going into conference play," quarterback Connor Cook said. "Obviously, Nebraska is going to be really tough. They have a great offense, a great running back in Ameer Abdullah, a great receiver in Kenny Bell, and it's going to be a challenge. But I feel like we have the rock rolling a little bit heading into conference play."
Cook has been as good as any passer in school history, hitting 52 of 74 throws for 820 yards and nine scores, averages of 11.1 yards per try with a TD every 8.2 tosses. He also has run for two scores.
Part of the reason for that has been the development of a 10-deep wide receiving corps, led by Tony Lippett with 22 catches and six TDs. Gone are the memories of a 66-drop season in 2012, replaced by replays of outstanding grabs.
"We're pretty confident," Lippett said. "We worked hard, so why not be confident? We just go out there and play fast and play hard. The coaches believe in you, so you should believe in yourself."
Dantonio and his staff believe in their running backs, too, led by Jeremy Langford, who rushed for more than 100 yards against eight straight conference opponents. After four straight games without 100 yards on the ground, Langford rushed for 137 against Wyoming.
With quality depth, the Spartans believe they are ready to win back-to-back Big Ten titles for the first time since 1965-66, beginning with a team they've never beaten at home and a Heisman-caliber, all-around back with three 200-yard rushing days this season.
"We face a great back each week in Langford," free safety Kurtis Dummond said. "We've been facing him since spring. Ameer is a great back, don't get me wrong, and they have a great receiving corps. But we've seen some great backs in practice, so we'll do what we do, enjoy this win, correct the things that need to be corrected and move on."