This match-up pits overall team strength against overall team strength. Nebraska comes in leading the Big Ten Conference and ranked seventh nationally with 261.0 rushing yards per game. The Spartans lead the conference and rank eight nationally against the run at just 88.9 yards per game.
The Huskers have been at their best on the ground in the second half, averaging 147.9 yards after halftime this season. Junior running back Rex Burkhead has led the way for NU, as he ranks fourth in the Big Ten and 17th nationally with 107.4 rushing yards per game and 10 touchdowns.
However, Michigan State features one of the best front fours in college football behind defensive tackle Jerel Worthy and defensive end William Gholston, and they've been especially good at shutting down dual-threat quarterbacks. The Spartans bottled up Michigan's Denard Robinson in their win two weeks ago, and they'll likely put the same emphasis on stopping Nebraska's Taylor Martinez today.
NU Pass Offense vs. MSU Pass Defense
Should Nebraska not be able to run the ball effectively this afternoon, the game could very well be decided on Martinez's arm. While he's shown flashes, the sophomore still hasn't had the kind of consistency in the passing game to let NU fans feel very good about putting the offense on his shoulders.
The Huskers rank 10th in the Big Ten and 103rd nationally in passing offense at 171.1 yards per game, and Martinez has struggled against the better secondaries he's faced since the start of conference play. He has done a much better job of checking down to other receivers, though, which has made a big difference in the overall effectiveness Nebraska's passing game.
To make matters worse, the Spartans also boast one of the best pass rushes in the country, ranking sixth nationally in sacks with 3.4 per game. If the Huskers are forced into obvious passing situations, the heat could be on Martinez more than ever before.
Edge: MICHIGAN STATE
MSU Run Offense vs. NU Run Defense
Coming into the season, Michigan State was regarded as one of the better rushing teams in the conference, as it featured All-Big Ten running back Edwin Baker and a big, physical offensive line. So far, the Spartans haven't done much of anything on the ground.
Michigan State is dead last the conference in rushing at just 138.0 yards per game. After running for more than 1,200 yards and finishing fourth in the Big Ten in rushing last season, Baker has been kept in check all year long at a modest 64.0 yards per game and two rushing touchdowns. He's also only broken the 100-yard mark just once this year.
However, Nebraska hasn't exactly been dominant against the run in its own right. Giving up and average of 162.7 rushing yards per game on the season, the Huskers enter today's game ranked ninth in the conference in run defense. They're facing their first real test without senior defensive tackle Jared Crick, and will also be without sophomore Thaddeus Randle (knee) in the tackle rotation.
MSU Pass Offense vs. NU Pass Defense
The Huskers will get a relatively unique test today in Michigan State quarterback Kirk Cousins. Unlike most every quarterback they've faced this season, Cousins does not pose much of a threat at all as a runner. What he lacks in mobility, though, he more than makes up for with his passing.
A great decision maker in the pocket, Cousins has completed nearly 67 percent of his passes this season for 1,607 yards, and he's thrown 11 touchdowns to just four interceptions. He also has some of the best receivers NU will see this season in B.J. Cunningham and Keshawn Martin. Cunningham already has 48 catches this season for 723 yards and three touchdowns and ranks 15th nationally with 6.86 receptions and 103.9 yards per game. Martin is second on the team with 27 catches for 249 yards and three scores.
The good news for Nebraska is it looks like it's finally found its second starting cornerback opposite Alfonzo Dennard in sophomore Stanley Jean-Baptiste. The Huskers should be able to match up well with MSU's receivers with the size they have at cornerback, but the difference here will be how much pressure the front seven can get on Cousins to disrupt his rhythm.
Edge: MICHIGAN STATE
Special Teams, What If's and The X-Factor
Special teams are the one aspect of the game that Nebraska comes in with a considerable advantage. With junior kicker/punter Brett Maher, who was just named a Groza Award semifinalist this week, the Huskers are rock solid in the kicking game. Freshman Ameer Abdullah leads the Big Ten in kickoff returns and ranks fourth in punt returns.
On the other side, Michigan States' weak link is arguably on special teams. The Spartans rank 108th nationally in punting, 60th in punt returns and 54th in kickoff returns. However, it's not as if they haven't produced a few big plays in the kicking and return game this season.
In last week's upset over then-No. 6 Wisconsin, Michigan State erased a 14-point second quarter deficit with the help of a blocked field goal and a blocked punt that was recovered for a touchdown. Nebraska's special teams units have made very few mistakes this year, but they'll have to be on their game again today to avoid giving the Spartans any big play opportunities.
Nebraska Will Win If:
It can run the ball well not only in the second half, but for all four quarters. The more the Huskers can reduce their reliance on Martinez to have to drop back and pass to move the ball, the better off they'll be against an opportunistic Spartan defense. On the other side of the ball, NU will have to stop the run first and foremost and then put a heavy rush on Cousins. A big play or two on special teams, certainly wouldn't hurt either.
Michigan State Will Win If:
It can find some sort of consistency in the running game to keep the heat off Cousins in the pocket. If he can sit back and go through his progressions, he's good enough to carve up NU's secondary. The defense will also have to shut down the run and make Martinez try to beat them with his arm.
After two straight emotional wins over instate rival Michigan and then Wisconsin last week, Michigan State has to be somewhat drained coming into yet another huge game today. The Huskers on the other hand have essentially had two straight bye weeks, considering Minnesota doesn't pose much of a challenge to anyone. There's no doubt NU's players know what's at stake in this game, and they definitely have a bit more left in the tank than the Spartans.