The Michigan State Spartans never had a chance.
Coming into Saturday’s showdown between the Nebraska Cornhuskers and Michigan State, everyone had a pretty solid idea of what each team needed to do to win. The Huskers had to avoid turning the ball over and step up their defensive effort. The Spartans, on the flip side, had to getting their lethargic rushing game going early and abuse the Huskers’ questionable secondary with some long bombs.
Whoever would do more of the things required of them on the day would claim the victory.
Ultimately, that team ended up being Nebraska, who absolutely destroyed Michigan State 24-3 in a game that wasn't ever actually in any doubt. A week after the Spartans shocked the Big Ten-ruling Wisconsin Badgers with a miraculous Hail Mary, they experienced a letdown of meteoric proportions on both the offensive and defensive ends.
To put this game in perspective, consider the circumstances going into halftime. As the seconds wound down in the second quarter, Nebraska quarterback Taylor Martinez opted to take a knee rather than to launch one last Hail Mary lob into the end zone. He had already thrown one interception in the quarter and, given his propensity for not hitting his receivers as of late, realized it would be better to go into halftime with only one turnover, even if it came at the expense of a potential touchdown.
After two quarters of play, the Huskers had accumulated zero passing yards. Zero. Martinez, for his part, was one-of-six – with his only successful throw coming on a play that went nowhere.
Nevertheless, Nebraska was up 10-3.
How could it be that the Michigan State defense, which give fits to the Badgers -- who, for their part, killed the Huskers a month ago -- just last week, be this ineffective? Well, it was a direct result of Nebraska’s suddenly rejuvenated defense and remarkably consistent rushing game.
The Huskers defense has essentially served as the public’s piñata all year, ranking anywhere from the mid-60s to the mid-90s in all major national statistical categories. Their awfulness, because it served in such stark contrast to the traditionally brilliant defenses that the program puts forth, was the subject of particular scrutiny.
On Saturday, though, the defense was brought back from the dead just in time for Halloween.
Going into the game, many wondered how the woeful Nebraska secondary would be able to handle Michigan State quarterback Kirk Cousins and his go-to receiver B.J. Cunningham.
As it turns out, they would go on to handle the pair pretty well. Every single time that Cunningham came even remotely close to catching the ball, some combination of Alfonzo Dennard and Daimion Stafford would be their to break it up. And on one of the few times that the pair wasn’t there to do their worst, it was Lance Thorrell who stepped up and intercepted a pass intended for Cunningham to return it 26 yards and set the Huskers up for a touchdown.
Cousins finished the day 11-of-27 for 85 yards and an interception. The inefficiency of the passing game coupled with running backs Le'Veon Bell and Edwin Baker continuing to show why their team is the worst running team in the Big Ten (total duds) translated into the Spartans offense being a non-factor all day.
Nebraska’s offense was completely reliant on running back Rex Burkhead making things happen in the first half. By the end of the second quarter, he racked up 50 yards and a touchdown all the while barraging through the Michigan State defense -- that came into the ranked as one of the best in the country -- with ease. He finished the day with 127 yards and two touchdowns on the ground, and one receiving touchdown tacked on for flavor.
Needless to say, he’s still the most underappreciated talent in the conference.
Martinez, despite being entirely ineffective in the first half throwing the pigskin, was emboldened by offensive coordinator Tim Beck to start the third quarter. Realizing that the Spartans would clamp down on the rush, Beck and Martinez opted to air the ball out to very successful results. It was Martinez who ultimately set up Burkhead’s second score with a four-of-four showing that saw both Tim Marlowe and Brandon Kinnie get chances to contribute.
The Nebraska quarterback ended the day eight-of-14 for 83 yards, a touchdown and an interception.
Even the usually sourly head coach Bo Pelini could be spotted grinning on the sidelines after the game, excited by just how dominant his team could it be when it played up to its full potential. The full potential, mind you, that had many arguing that the Huskers could reign supreme in the Big Ten back before the year even began.
Most importantly, this victory puts the Huskers in prime position to take control of their division assuming, of course, that they can handle what promises to be a very tough schedule.
Next up, Nebraksa will face the Northwestern Wildcats next Saturday at 3:30 p.m.