No. 21 Nebraska has inside track to Big Ten title game, but plenty of obstacles coming up
For the Nebraska Cornhuskers, November is shaping up like one big obstacle course.
After beating Michigan last weekend, 21st-ranked Nebraska can wrap up a spot in the Big Ten title game with four more wins — but it won't be easy. First up is a major test at Michigan State on Saturday.
"My message to the team is you get what you earn in this world. They are not going to give you anything," Cornhuskers coach Bo Pelini said. "You have to earn it and you have to be ready to go take it. It's as simple as that. It's not going to just happen by mistake. It's not going to happen by magic. You have to put the work in and match the work ethic and the process with what you want to result to be."
Nebraska (6-2, 3-1 Big Ten) certainly earned the inside track to the conference title game with its 23-9 win over Michigan. But a lot can change over the next month. After facing Michigan State (5-4, 2-3), the Huskers have a home game against Penn State. They also play at Iowa in the regular season finale.
Michigan State has struggled this year, but the Spartans are certainly capable of winning this weekend and shaking up the Legends Division race. In fact, Michigan State already threw a bit of a wrench into the Leaders Division last weekend with a victory over Wisconsin.
"We understand where we're at right now, but let's see where we're at at the end. Let's focus on the next game, not worry about things too far in the distance," Spartans coach Mark Dantonio said. "We have played well in November around here. We need to continue doing that. Again, I think it gives credit to our players, how they've hung in there regardless of what season we've had. They've hung in there and played well down the stretch, which is a positive thing for us."
Nebraska's Taylor Martinez is set to break 2001 Heisman Trophy winner Eric Crouch's school career total-offense record Saturday. Martinez has 7,801 career yards of total offense. Crouch had 7,915.
The Huskers have never lost to Michigan State and beat the Spartans 24-3 last year. That was Michigan State's only conference loss of the regular season.
The Spartans are a longshot to return to the Big Ten title game, but they're used to playing on a big stage and they've been tested plenty this season. All five of Michigan State's conference games so far have been decided by four points or less.
Dantonio was pleased that his team was able to win at Wisconsin after an emotional loss to Michigan.
"To be able to sort of regroup, get it back into context, whether you win or you lose, play the next football game, to me sends a message that we're not complacent, that we're going to continue to focus and bring energy to the next game," he said.
The Spartans lean on running back Le'Veon Bell, who has rushed for 1,061 yards this season. Quarterback Andrew Maxwell is also making strides despite an inexperienced receiving corps.
"I feel comfortable with the guys around me," Maxwell said. "I feel that way because we have a group of guys who are going to do whatever it is they're asked to do. A lot has been made of the different lineups, different starters we've had. The thing about that is you know every guy that goes in there is going to have an attitude and mindset to do whatever it is they're asked to do."
Still only a junior, Martinez could finish his career as one of college football's most prolific quarterbacks — but the short-term question is whether Nebraska can finish atop the Big Ten this year. With the Rose Bowl looking more and more plausible, Martinez can help cement his legacy with a strong finish over these next few weeks.
"I think he's done a lot of great things since he's been here," Pelini said. "I think the best part about it is I think there is still a lot more out there for him. He continues to work hard. I think he's developing in a lot of different ways. I think he's maturing as a football player. I think there's still a lot more he can do to get better."