1. Next man up, please
Don’t worry, Bo Pelini assured, Nebraska will put five offensive linemen on the field Saturday. There was a point this week when you started to wonder. It was thought it couldn’t get any worse after Spencer Long, Jake Cotton and Jeremiah Sirles limped off the field. Then Mike Moudy showed up with a sling on his left shoulder this week, meaning Nebraska could be without four of its best offensive linemen. That’s astonishing. Nightmarish might be another word for it. But there are no pity parties in this game. Michigan State’s top-ranked rushing defense (allowing 43.4 yards per game) won’t show sympathy. And so it falls on the shoulders of unproven Huskers such as tackle Zach Sterup to step up. Maybe Givens Price gets some snaps. Maybe Ryne Reeves. Buckle the chinstrap tight. They must view it as an opportunity. If they can block these guys, they can block anyone. And leadership must come from Andrew Rodriguez, Cole Pensick, Brent Qvale and Mark Pelini. Those four have all played against the Spartans before. Beaten them, too. It’s going to be a street fight. And sometimes the Huskers might feel like they’re pounding their heads against a wall. Patience and mental fortitude are musts. It's a game to keep pushing, pushing, pushing. Maybe, just maybe, you push hard enough and that wall falls down. If it does, Ameer Abdullah knows where to go.
2. Testing Tommy
This is the ultimate test for young Tommy Armstrong. It’s the challenge of knowing when to eat the football and live for another down, and when to see opportunity and grab it by the neck. You’d like to make it easy on the kid and give him a dynamite run game, feed Abdullah until he can’t eat anymore, all that. But the likelihood is that Armstrong is going to have to make a few plays with his arm. There might be only a few opportunities for momentum-shifting plays in a game like this. He has to pounce on them when they occur. Can he make those four or five big throws? We’re talking about the ones that move the sticks on a crucial third down, the ones where his receiver has a guy beat by a step. And can he avoid the slip-ups this Spartan defensive thrives on? Even on the option, he’ll have to be a fountain of wisdom with his pitches. If you’re a split-second off, the Spartans will be celebrating in the end zone. In this kind of game, there are much worse things than having to punt. Don’t count the freshman out. A week ago, he kept his wits and silenced 110,000 fans at The Big House. And one thing Bo Pelini said you can count on from Armstrong? He won’t be intimidated.
3. Put it on the Cook
When you hold Michigan to minus 21 rushing yards, you walk a little taller. This seems to be a different defense now, a confident defense, aggressive, showing signs of nastiness. But the Huskers still remember three weeks ago, when Minnesota pounded them with the run game. Michigan State will no doubt try to challenge the Huskers’ manhood the same way. The thing Nebraska can’t afford is to let Sparty’s big, 205-pound back, Jeremy Langford, and 200-pound Nick Hill to keep churning for yards after contact. Hit 'em and drop 'em. Otherwise, 2-yard gains turn into 5 or 6 yards. Stopping the run must come first and foremost. Make Michigan State quarterback Connor Cook — relatively inexperienced himself — put the game on his arm. He’s not easy to get pressure on (Michigan State has allowed only seven sacks), and he’s pretty smart with the ball (just three interceptions). But somehow, some way, you sense the Huskers need to coax him into a turnover, or two or three. Beat the Spartans at their own game. That’d have everyone calling this defense the Blackshirts again.
4. Looking for a leg up
The punting game isn’t the sexiest topic, but it could be a deciding factor in this one. Michigan State punter Mike Sadler is a Ray Guy Award semifinalist and All-America candidate. Of his 47 punts, 15 have been downed inside the foe’s 10-yard line. That's a concern for the Huskers, who rank 107th in punt returns. And Jordan Westerkamp has been banged up this week. Will the redshirt freshman be able to return and shake off last week’s fumbled punt? And can Husker punter Sam Foltz do his own pin jobs against the Spartans? Above all else, field position might win the day. And it’s a game the Huskers have to find a way to win. Win and a shot at a return trip to Indy becomes a very real possibility. Lose and that dream is gone. Hang on. These are the Saturdays that can shape the narrative for a season.