Don’t look now, but in the most Big Ten fashion ever, the Nebraska Cornhuskers are within striking distance to win the conference’s west division. Matt Rhule’s squad enters this weekend amid a three-game winning streak, all against conference opponents, and now they’ll head into Lansing to take on a 2-6 Michigan State team. With the team starting to buy into Rhule’s system, I’ll break down why I like them to pick up their fourth straight win and second straight cover come Saturday.
The two things you don’t want to have in the middle of a season are a coaching change and a quarterback change, but unfortunately for the Spartans, they’ve had both. In his first game as the starter, Katin Houser led the offense to 24 points, which is the most the team has scored against a conference opponent. However, that momentum did not carry over into the following weeks, as the Spartans scored a combined 12 points in their last two games.
With Houser averaging just 117 yards per game since he took over as the starting signal-caller, Michigan State is now 113th in offensive success rate on pass plays. Since the Spartans have constantly needed to play from behind and have not gotten solid quarterback play, that has greatly affected their running game. Opposing defenses have been able to stack the box against them, resulting in an average of 102.3 rush yards per game, which is good for 114th in the country.
Like most weeks in the Big Ten, the Spartans' offense will be challenged with a strong defense. Nebraska’s clear strength as a team is their defense, as they would likely be below .500 without that side of the ball. Coming off a 31-14 win over Purdue, the Cornhuskers have now held four of their five conference opponents to 14 points or less, resulting in the 25th-best defensive EPA in the country.
Offense remains the biggest question for Nebraska and their success moving forward. Even after scoring 31 points last weekend, the Huskers are 87th in offensive success rate, and much like Michigan State, they are also looking for more consistent quarterback play. Heinrich Haarberg threw for 122 yards and two touchdowns last week, but he has been far more effective with his legs than his arm.
For just the second time in Big Ten play, Nebraska is favored. Currently, the Cornhuskers are listed at (-3), and I’ll be backing them for my pick. If the Big Ten has taught us anything, it is that you can win games strictly with defense, and I think that’ll be the case in this game. Michigan State has not proven they can move the ball downfield consistently and sustain drives (101st in third down conversion percentage), and I don’t think that suddenly changes this week.
Explosiveness is not a strength of the Spartans' offense, and that plays right into the hands of a Nebraska defense that is 9th in average yards allowed per play. Nebraska should have no problem shutting down the Michigan State run game since they are 8th in defensive success rate on run plays. This puts more pressure on Katin Houser to perform at a higher level, and if that’s the case, then I’ll happily back the Huskers as road favorites.
Nebraska’s offense won’t light up the scoreboard, but they’ve at least shown they can put together a scoring drive when they need one. Running back Emmett Johnson has been a pleasant surprise out of the backfield over the last two weeks, and between him and Haarberg, I think the Cornhuskers can find enough success on the ground to grind out another win.
Nebraska Cornhuskers (-3)