Michigan State's doctrine of defense sounds like something cooked up by a biker gang.

MSU defenders refer to themselves as "Spartan Dawgs."

Their mantra: "An Elite Group United to Wreak Havoc, Instill Fear and Dominate the Country."

"Sons of Anarchy"-style, I assume.

Nebraska offensive line coach John Garrison took a peek at Michigan State's top-ranked defense a few weeks ago during the Huskers' second bye week.

Yeah, pretty intimidating.

"Their linebackers are big and physical," Garrison said. "They're constantly putting eight men in the box. It looks like a seven-man box, but they're always adding guys in. They want to stop the run and make you throw it."

Trouble is, Michigan State possesses excellent cornerbacks and a talented secondary in general. It all adds up to a unit that leads the nation in total defense, rushing defense and pass-efficiency defense.

The Spartan Dawgs allow only 43.4 rushing yards per game, and a measly 1.6 per carry. Do that, and a defense can call itself whatever it pleases.

The Spartans must have vulnerability somewhere, right?

"We've got to find that crease," Garrison said. "We have to find that leak in the dam and really exploit it."

Michigan State (8-1, 5-0 Big Ten) comes to Lincoln on Saturday looking to a put a stranglehold on first place in the Big Ten Legends Division. To the surprise of many of its own fans, Nebraska (7-2, 4-1) still looms as a threat to capture its second straight division title.

Those thinking the Huskers' beat-up offense has no chance against the Spartan Dawgs should consider at least two critical factors:

* Michigan State generally has bullied the dregs of the Big Ten (Iowa, Indiana, Purdue, Illinois and Michigan). Combined conference record: 7-19. By the same token, Nebraska's league foes to this point have a record of only 6-20.

* Nebraska can draw confidence from two straight wins against Michigan State in which the Huskers averaged 26 points and 371.5 yards.

But redshirt freshman Tommy Armstrong (aided by senior backup Ron Kellogg) now operates the Nebraska offense in lieu of injured senior standout Taylor Martinez.

On the surface, this particular matchup looks like trouble for the Huskers: a relatively inexperienced quarterback squaring off against a veteran-laden Spartan defense (seven returning starters from last season) that's led by a seventh-year coordinator in Pat Narduzzi.

Michigan State produced top-10 defenses each of the past two seasons, but since has moved to an elite level because it's now forcing more turnovers (16 takeaways this season) and getting more sacks (16).

With Armstrong, Nebraska would be wise to approach the game in a similar manner to Saturday's 17-13 triumph at Michigan. That is, give Armstrong a game plan he can manage. Make it relatively simple for him at the line of scrimmage. Give him high-percentage passes when possible. Make the option game prominent in the plan; he feels comfortable in that realm.

"We sat down as a staff last week and went around the table — each coach got to express what he thought we needed to do to win the game," Garrison said. "We all came back to, 'We have to have a manageable game for Tommy.'

"He's a young guy. He can be very successful. But we have to put him in successful situations. Don't give him the fire hose, give him the garden hose to drink out of."

Armstrong obviously showed poise in the din of Michigan Stadium. After throwing six interceptions in his previous two starts, he threw none against the Wolverines.

If Nebraska is to defeat Michigan State, the game might have to look something like NU's 10-3 win against then-No. 20 Oklahoma in 2009 in Lincoln. The Huskers rode running back Roy Helu Jr., took care of the ball and intercepted five passes.

Michigan State's offense ranks 86th nationally in average yards per game (379.2), though the Spartans have shown an ability to run the ball (190.4 yards per game to rank 44th). Sophomore quarterback Connor Cook has thrown only three interceptions (vs. 13 touchdowns) in 136 attempts.

Cook will face a surging Nebraska defense, one that held Michigan to 175 yards of total offense and recorded 15 tackles for loss.

"We played hard, we played with passion and we played for each other," said redshirt freshman linebacker Michael Rose, relating qualities that are no doubt hallmarks of the havoc-wreaking Spartan Dawgs.

Reach Steven M. Sipple at 402-473-7440 or ssipple@journalstar.com.