EAST LANSING, Mich. — Michigan State’s next obstacle is one the Spartans have never overcome.
Beat Nebraska, and a spot in the Big Ten championship game is all but assured — but the Cornhuskers have won all seven meetings between the schools.
“We’ve never run from facing Nebraska, but that is the one football team that we have not beaten since coming here, so that remains a goal of ours,” Michigan State coach Mark Dantonio said.
“But I think there are bigger and more important things to worry about — we’ve got to beat Nebraska to accomplish our goals, and that’s why it’s such a big game.”
The 14th-ranked Spartans can clinch at least a share of the Legends Division title with a victory at Nebraska on Saturday, but since joining the Big Ten, the Cornhuskers have beaten Michigan State each of the past two years. The teams first faced each other in 1914, and Nebraska has won by at least two touchdowns in every game except last season’s.
The Spartans nearly broke through in 2012, but Nebraska scored two touchdowns in the final 7:02 to win 28-24. Taylor Martinez threw a 5-yard touchdown pass to Jamal Turner with 6 seconds left to win it.
That TD came after a pass interference call on Michigan State put the ball at the 5 with 17 seconds left. The Spartans also allowed a fourth-down conversion on that drive — and earlier in the game, they had an interception return for a touchdown that was nullified by a penalty.
“The football game last year was difficult to swallow the way it went down at the end, and I’ll leave it at that,” Dantonio said. “There were some different things that went on in the game that were unconventional. I’ll leave it at that.”
Michigan State (8-1, 5-0 Big Ten) is favored by about a touchdown this week. The Spartans had last weekend off after shutting down rival Michigan 29-6. Michigan State is ranked No. 1 in the country in total defense.
If the Spartans win this weekend, they would need only one victory in the final two games to be certain of a spot in the conference title game. Nebraska (7-2, 4-1) has remained on Michigan State’s heels with a pair of dramatic victories.
The Cornhuskers beat Northwestern 27-24 two weekends ago by completing a 49-yard touchdown pass on the final play. Last week, they edged Michigan 17-13.
Martinez is injured, and Tommy Armstrong Jr. has started five games in his place.
“We still have to respect the quarterback that’s in there, but he’s not Taylor Martinez,” Michigan State defensive lineman Shilique Calhoun said. “He’s not taking off like he is. He’s a little more stationary.”
Nebraska has leaned on running back Ameer Abdullah, who has already rushed for 1,213 yards this season. Armstrong is not the running threat that Martinez is, but the Cornhuskers have had time to adjust to their star quarterback’s injury problems.
“I think they’re going to try and do the same things with Armstrong long term that they do with Martinez,” Dantonio said. “Taylor was such a great runner that could take it the distance . so he’s a very good football player, but I do think that Tommy Armstrong is an exceptional football player as a redshirt freshman.”
Michigan State went to the Big Ten title game two years ago despite losing 24-3 at Nebraska. The Spartans said Tuesday that the trip to Memorial Stadium in Lincoln was an eye opener — players were almost taken aback by the friendliness of the Nebraska fans.
“Going to a hostile environment, you’re not expecting people to welcome you the way they did,” offensive lineman Fou Fonoti said. “I don’t know what it was — you walked in, people saying, ‘Hey, welcome to Lincoln, pleasure having you here, we wish you all the best.’”
Of course, Michigan State hasn’t traditionally been a threat to Nebraska. Perhaps the rivalry will intensify if the Spartans finally beat the Cornhuskers.
“I have not been to Nebraska yet. This is going to be my first time,” Calhoun said. “But I’ve actually heard about it, and heard about how they’re extremely kind, and it kind of throws you off a little bit. You just have to go in with the mindset that you have something to do — a job.”