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Michigan State Spartans vs. Nebraska Cornhuskers: Preview, predictions and prognostications

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When: Sat., Nov. 7; 7 p.m. ET
Where: Lincoln, NE; Memorial Stadium
TV: ESPN
All-Time Series: Nebraska leads, 7-2
Last Meeting: Michigan State 27-22 (2014)
Line: Michigan State -5

This was supposed to be the best cross-division game on the entire conference schedule heading into the season, as Nebraska and Michigan State have competed for conference championships each of the past four seasons. However, this game has been largely overshadowed by a big slate of national games and thanks to Nebraska’s struggles in 2015. Granted, this game still has playoff implications for the undefeated Spartans, but this is now a game that pundits think should be easily won instead of a big test.

Will Michigan State overlook the Cornhusker threat or come out slow following the bye in a hostile night game road environment (Nebraska has won 16 straight night games at Memorial Stadium)? Let’s count to five and preview this old Legends Division rivalry.

1 Burning Question: Does Nebraska muster the best effort of the season with bowl eligibility on the line?

Before last week’s game against Purdue, Nebraska needed three wins in four games to make a bowl after the 3-5 start. The Cornhuskers had lost a lot of tough heartbreakers, so even with two Top-10 teams left on the docket in Michigan State and Iowa, it did still seem like the Cornhuskers could turn it around and get one of those big games to make the postseason. One surprising loss at West Lafayette later, and now Nebraska needs to win out against those tougher teams to make a bowl.

That seems unlikely to happen, but the Cornhuskers are a proud program that has not missed a bowl in quite some time. Bo Pelini might have lost four games a season, but he never lost more than that, which put Nebraska in the postseason consistently. With Mike Reilly perhaps not being given as much time to make things work, it is important that this team show some progress before the end of the year.

 

Michigan State has had trouble putting teams away decisively though, including a 1-2 record against the spread in road games. The one cover in that time period was the miracle win against rival Michigan, so take that for what it’s worth. That may explain why this line seems very low for a game between an 8-0 team and a 3-6 team, as perhaps Vegas expects continued struggles by the Spartans or a great performance by Nebraska here.

It’s put up or shut up time for Nebraska. If the Cornhuskers want to avoid a historically bad season, this team needs to play the best game of the year.

2 Key Stats

— 33.4 and 33.3. That is scoring average for these teams, ranking only behind Ohio State in the conference this season. One big reason to tune into this night game is if you like big offense, as this could become a Big 12-like affair. Both teams have struggled to defend the pass this season, which bodes well for two of the more effective quarterbacks in the league Connor Cook and Tommy Armstrong (assuming the latter plays, as planned). Both teams will move the ball and likely eclipse 400 yards in this contest, meaning last team with the ball might just win, as is typical in Nebraska games this season.

— 39.0 (MSU) and 69.6 (NEB). That’s the average penalty yardage per game for these teams. Other than the series of brutal losses in every close game imaginable, Nebraska fans have been highly frustrated by the lack of discipline this team has shown. That shows up most notably in two areas, turnovers and penalties. Michigan State is 18 turnovers better in turnover margin and 30 yards per game better in penalties committed, which is a lot of yardage and mistakes/big plays to overcome. With Nebraska’s defense not playing great, this lack of discipline for the Cornhuskers helps explain the 3-6 record.

3 Key Players

Connor Cook, Michigan State QB — Cook has thrown two, yes just TWO, interceptions on the season. That’s an upperclassman leader who knows when to throw the ball and when to save a play for another day or another series. Thanks to the emergence of Aaron Burbridge as a top target (104 yards receiving per game), Cook has been able to lead the Spartan offense to over 250 yards passing per game. Nebraska is actually fairly tough on defense against the run, but the secondary and pass coverage is putrid. Cook should have his best game of the season against this defense.

Shilique Calhoun, Michigan State DE — Calhoun may have gotten off to a slow start this season as more attention was directed his way, but the better play across the Spartan defensive line has opened up more opportunities for him to make big impact plays. Calhoun now has 8 sacks on the season to go with 10.5 tackles for loss. His play in pressuring and containing the running ability of Tommy Armstrong will be key for Michigan State to have a good game defensively against the potent Nebraska offense.

Jordan Westerkamp, Nebraska WR — Much like Nebraska, Michigan State has struggled at times to stop the passing game, as the so-called “no fly zone” has not lived up to that billing against top-level quarterbacks this season. With Armstrong perhaps not being willing to risk himself in the running game when not fully healthy, he will need a big effort out of his top receiver Westerkamp to make the big plays necessary to hang around with the Spartans on Saturday night. As Westerkamp and the Nebraska receivers go, so will the offense and also the chances for the upset by the home team.

4 Bold Prognostications

Both teams go over 400 yards of offense: This was briefly mentioned above when talking about the offensive scoring stats, but I expect both of these quarterbacks to lead their offenses to big days against struggling defenses. There will be no appearance by the No Fly Zone or the Blackshirts on Saturday night, as this becomes a shootout to beat all shootouts in the Big Ten, except for that crazy Rutgers-Indiana game last month.

Michigan State generates 3 turnovers: Nebraska has given up the ball 17 times this year, which is about two turnovers per game. I expect this to be a sloppy effort by both teams, with MSU turning the ball over a couple of times but still winning the turnover battle thanks to a couple of Tommy Armstrong interceptions and a fumble. Instead of deciding the game, these turnovers will simply be the interesting shifts in momentum as this game ebbs and flows with tons of offense.

Michigan State gets a red zone defensive stop: Nebraska has been the second most efficient Big Ten team in the red zone, scoring on 36 of 39 trips there. This includes 27 touchdowns, which leads the conference. However, whether it is by a turnover or a fourth-down stop, I predict that the Spartans will find a way to stop the Husker machine inside the red zone at least once this game. It will be a bend-but-don’t-break defensive effort anyway for MSU, if my other bold predictions turn out correct.

Jordan Westerkamp ends with more receiving yards than Aaron Burbrurdge: These are two of the top receivers in the conference but Burbridge has owned a clear edge statistically in receptions and in yards per contest. Despite Nebraska’s pass defense being worse on the whole compared to the MSU pass defense, I expect Westerkamp to have the better day overall as Armstrong will need to rely on him much more than Cook has to rely on any one of his targets to be effective. Westerkamp breaks at least one, if not more big plays to shorten the gap in receiving average between him and Burbridge following this game on Saturday night.

5 Staff Predictions: (overall season record; record against the spread)

Andy: Michigan State 31-27 (68-17 overall; 37-47 ATS)
Dave: Michigan State 33-20 (69-16 overall; 44-39 ATS)
Greg: Michigan State 31-23 (62-23 overall; 47-36 ATS)
Matt: Michigan State 48-34 (68-17 overall; 50-33 ATS)
Phil: Michigan State 38-27 (23-9 overall; 11-18 ATS) *joined in Week 5

Dave is a FWAA member and a Columnist focusing on Big Ten football for talking10. Before joining talking in 2014, he was a Featured Columnist for three years at Bleacher Report and previously wrote for seven years on SouthernCollegeSports.com. He was born in Hawkeye Country and went to college in Columbus, so there's plenty of B1G running through his blood. Dave is a patent and trademark attorney in his day job. If you have any questions in those areas or about his latest articles, please contact him on Twitter @BuckeyeFitzy.

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Huskers Football

Keyshawn Johnson Jr. unsurprisingly transferring from Huskers

Following a summer pot citation and his dad pulling him from school, Keyshawn Johnson Jr. announces his transfer.

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Did you know that Keyshawn Johnson Jr. was a member of the Nebraska Cornhuskers program? Chances are, if you blinked you missed his time on campus.

That’s what happens when you get busted for pot possession and your dad brings you home to teach you a lesson or two.

The elder Johnson made sure to make a statement when pulling his kid out of school just days in to his time there. He made it clear that there were higher (no pun intended) expectations of his son.

“One thing you will not do as my son is you will not embarrass Nebraska, you will not embarrass Mike Riley and you will not embarrass this family,” Johnson Sr. told the Omaha World-Herald. “If you mature and you’re ready to resume your football career and academic goals, then Nebraska will be ready to embrace you.”

So, it shouldn’t come as a surprise that the former 4-star recruit with the famous name isn’t going to continue his career at Nebraska.

On Friday, the younger Johnson announced his decision to not return to the University of Nebraska-Lincoln.

The combination of his citation for marijuana possession and the coaching change likely sealed the deal for this move.

Johnson Jr. enrolled early, coming to Lincoln in January, but suffered an illness that he couldn’t shake for parts of spring practice. He appeared in the spring game, but caught just one pass for 7 yards.

Nebraska could use the depth at wide receiver, but with a new regime in place and his father having no relationship with the new staff this move is not surprising.

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Frost turning to Florida to bring speed to Huskers program

Frost is leaning on his Florida ties in hoping to shape his roster in his image quicker than expected.

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Scott Frost has technically only been on the job for the Nebraska Cornhuskers for less than a week, but he clearly has had a gameplan in place for a while now.

That much is evident not only by how quickly he’s gotten a staff together, but by the details on the recruiting trail.

Normally it takes time to evaluate what is on a roster in front of you and figure out what is needed. That process didn’t take long (or likely took place last week as he waited to take the job formally), because Frost has attacked the recruiting trail hard in his first week on the job.

So, what is his evaluation of the Huskers program? It is in need of speed, speed and more speed.

Frost has decided that in order to get his team up to speed he needs to do so buy finding that speed right in his old back yard.

It’s a move that makes sense, as Frost has built good relationships in Florida and that is where some of the best high school talent in the country exists today.

Nebraska’s 247Sports site, Huskers Illustrated, had a really good talk on the inner workings of what Frost has done already on the recruiting trail on this week’s Notorious B1G Podcast (because who doesn’t love an all-Big Ten recruiting podcast?)

Mike Riley and Co. spent less time on Florida and more time on the West Coast, which should’ve been expected given Riley’s ties in that direction. But, the crop of pure athletes out West is nothing compared to the depth of speed and athleticism that exists in Florida.

Ironically, Frost’s first offer came from out West as the No. 8-ranked dual-threat quarterback, Adrian Martinez, was offered within hours of Frost getting the job.

That move and all the ones made since his hire show Frost has come in with a clear knowledge of his system, who fits it on the recruiting trail and who fits it currently on the roster. Having that kind of confidence and work-rate are a welcome sight in Lincoln.

But, Frost isn’t just hitting the ground running on the recruiting trail either.

He’s also been taking time to speak to the national media and spread the gospel of what he wants to build at Nebraska. Frost spoke on the Jim Rome Show on Thursday and didn’t buy the notion that recruiting to Lincoln, Neb. is a difficult task.

“There’s absolutely no reason we can’t get kids to Lincoln, Nebraska,” Frost said, via Land of 10. “Kids leave places right now and go everywhere around the country. There’s no reason kids won’t go to Lincoln if they’re going to Columbus, Ann Arbor, and Eugene, Oregon.

“And I think we’re going to create an environment, a football environment in Lincoln that people are going to want to be a part of.”

Success in turning a program around often hinges on the first recruiting class to come in. That’s not to say this class should be put at the feet of Frost and his staff entirely, but if they can put a stamp on an already nice class it could be the one that breaks a mediocre mold for the Huskers program.

No matter what, Frost and his staff aren’t afraid to be aggressive and go after the type of player they need. That alone has to be a refreshing sign of change for the Husker faithful.

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Huskers hope Scott Frost hire brings back glory days

Native son returns home to lead program he once was the star quarterback of. Can the glory days return with the Huskers dipping in to their past?

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What had become the worst-kept secret in college football’s coaching carousel became official on Saturday afternoon. Just hours after leading his UCF Knights to a crazy 62-55 double overtime win over Memphis in the American Athletic Conference championship game, Frost bolted for a gig back home.

UCF’s 247sports site announced the news, noting that Forst will not coach the team in the upcoming bowl game. However, after the AAC championship game, UCF’s AD noted that Frost and the entire coaching staff would coach through the Peach Bowl.

Nebraska athletics director Bill Moos named Frost the new Huskers head coach, ending a search many thought would start and end with Frost first.

“It is a great honor and privilege to have the opportunity to return to Nebraska and to lead the Husker football program,” Frost said in a statement released by the school. “I have been fortunate to be at a wonderful school the last two years, but Nebraska is a special place with a storied tradition and a fan base which is second to none. I am truly humbled to be hereee. The state of Nebraska and the Husker program mean a great deal to me. This is home.

“I am appreciative of the confidence Bill Moos and our University leadership have in me to lead this program. I would not have the opportunity to be in this position without a lot of great people who have helped me throughout my career. Specifically, I would like to thank Coach Osborne who has played such an integral role in my life over the past two decades, both on and off the field. Go Big Red!”

In bringing a native son and former Huskers quarterback in to the fold to lead the program, Nebraska is clearly hoping the magic of the mid 1990’s can rub off on the program once again.

Frost was integral in the Huskers success in the 90’s, where he was a star quarterback for two years after transferring home from Stanford. He led the program to a 24-2 record as the starter and became just the 10th player in major college football history to pass for 1,000 yards and rush for 1,000 yards.

He had a cup of coffee in the NFL, but was moved from quarterback to safety and just couldn’t find his way in the league.

While thoughts of Frost leading the Huskers offense are likely to bring smiles back to the Husker faithful, the reality of today’s program won’t.

It’s been a rough go since the calendar turned over to the year 2000, as the Huskers haven’t won a single conference championship since 1999.

Frost faces a big challenge, as the Huskers vaunted defense has fallen on hard times and the program just got done with a 4-8 season under Mike Riley. Luckily for the Husker faithful, Frost isn’t going to be caught off-guard by the challenges of a turnaround.

He took over a UCF program that went winless the year before he came to campus and had them 6-7 and going bowling in his first season. This year his team went undefeated in the regular season, joining the Wisconsin Badgers as the only two undefeated teams in the country after the regular season finished up.

Frost also led the Knights to the AAC championship despite a ton of off-field distraction surrounding his job status and rumors about Florida, Nebraska and Oregon interest in his services.

Now the pressure will be on to get the Huskers back to championship football, and soon.

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3 names Nebraska Cornhuskers should consider in replacing Mike Riley

Does the Huskers coaching search really begin and end with Scott Frost?

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Most of the time, head coaching searches and the media equal a whole lot of names and not a lot of facts to back them up. Thankfully, with Nebraska athletic director Bill Moos being so candid in his press conference yesterday, we know exactly what Moos is looking for and don’t have to speculate.

What you won’t see here is a list of hot assistant coaches or lower-level names looking to make a big jump into FBS football. Moos let us all know it’s a pool of six names and that he’s looking for someone with previous head coaching experience.

Knowing there are six names in the top drawer of Moos’ desk, we’re here to let you know the three names we hope will be on the list and the names we’d be considering if we were in his shoes.

Of course, this list isn’t to say others aren’t on it, but again this is our opinion on who should be there for the Huskers.

 

Scott Frost, UCF Head Coach

This is the obvious name that will be on every list, and he should be. He’s got the Nebraska pedigree, he’s got the high-powered offense everyone wants to see and he’s got the UCF Knights in a position to pull off an undefeated season. All that stands in the way of that is the AAC title game and a New Year’s Six bowl game.

Should Frost’s team win the title game next weekend, it begs the question of timing. Would Frost really bolt with a perfect season and a New Year’s Six bowl game on the line? Would Nebraska be willing to wait it out and hope the recruiting class can stay intact until Frost can get to Lincoln in January?

All of those questions are valid, but about the biggest question to be answered is if Frost wants to leave UCF after just two seasons or not. While the money and temptation of “going home” is certainly a big pull, so is building something special at a program like UCF. Is jumping ship so quickly what Frost really wants? Or does he want to build something and wait for the job he really wants?

Money certainly doesn’t seem to be too big an obstacle and with Florida apparently set to hire Dan Mullen, the door seems wide open for Frost if he so chooses.

Craig Bohl, Wyoming Head Coach

This is a name I thought the Huskers should’ve looked at the last time they made a move for a head coach. Hindsight is always 20-20, but the good news is that Bohl has only gone on to do himself a lot of favors in his time as the head coach at Wyoming. The Cowboys have gone from a doormat to a very good Mountain West team in his short time in Laramie.

Oh, and if you need roots in Nebraska, Bohl has them. I mean, he was the linebackers coach while the Huskers were winning national championships in the 1990’s and left after three years as the defensive coordinator (2000-2002) to take over the NDSU program. If you want to bring the blackshirts back, Bohl knows what that is all about.

But, what about recruiting with a “non-sexy” hire like Bohl?

If ever there’s proof that a good coach can recruit to difficult situations and develop talent, it is Bohl at Wyoming. He’s turned a program that is sub .500 in its history in to a program that went 8-6 and 7-5 over the last two seasons. Additionally, the program has finished first or second in the Mountain division each of the past two years.

Then there’s the fact that he turned North Dakota State in to the ultimate power team in the FCS division as well.

Let’s just say, for Midwest coaches it is hard to find a more impressive resume than what Bohl has already put together. His ability to reach recruits and run a fun offense to watch along with quality defense should fit the mold well for the Huskers. The question some may ask if this hire moves the needle enough for the outside world to get on board.

Having been around the game long enough, internally, few coaches are more respected than Bohl, and that can make a lot of difference when you are trying to get everyone pushing in the same direction — from the administration to the boosters and regular fans. Bohl has a lot of what Moos would like to see in a head coach.

Matt Campbell, Iowa State Head Coach

We know this is a name that Moos has high interest in to say the least. Campbell was a big winner at Toledo and he’s gotten the Iowa State Cyclones back to winning football in just two seasons. Wins over both Oklahoma (on the road) and TCU (at home) showcased just what kind of coaching job Campbell is capable of.

But, like Frost, he’s in the middle of rebuilding and building something special right where he is at. Campbell also has one hefty buyout in his contract. While, money again doesn’t seem to be an object, Campbell’s reported $9 million buyout is certainly a hefty price to pay.

Personally, I love what Campbell has been able to do for the Iowa State program and what we’ve seen on the field from the Cyclones would be a great fit for the Huskers too. Campbell’s team played easily the best defense of anyone in the defense-absent Big 12 conference and his offenses showcased speed and power at the same time.

That’s the combination that can win games in Lincoln. But, again there is one big question that only one person can answer and that person is Matt Campbell.

Does Campbell see Nebraska as a step up or a lateral move? We could argue the merits of that all day, but in the end it really depends on if Campbell believes Ames is a place where winning football can become the norm instead of the special season. If he believes in what he’s building there, prying him away from the Cyclones may be hard. As hard as apparently winning conference championships has been for the Huskers.

 

Analysis of What Will Actually Happen:

In the end, this search begins and ends with Scott Frost. With Florida being reportedly rebuffed by Frost and hiring Dan Mullen away from Mississippi State it seems as if the writing is on the wall.

That said, I also subscribe to the “sometimes the simplest answer is the right answer” philosophy. When it comes to Nebraska’s coaching search that simple answer is Frost.

But, should something crazy happen and the Nebraska alum not want to take the job, it wouldn’t hurt to have Craig Bohl as your backup plan. All the dude does is win football games and win a lot of them. His championship pedigree with Nebraska and North Dakota State should be all that Moos would need to go in his direction should Frost say no.

I’m fully expecting Moos to be able to get his man though. The stars are just aligning too well for it not to happen. Let’s see if the Huskers can get the man they probably should’ve hired the last time, this time around.

As for the timing, I fully expect this deal to be done this time tomorrow (Monday). It also will come with the stipulation that Frost coaches out the season for UCF should they move on to the New Years Six bowl game many expect to happen. That part will be the tricky part of the negotiations if you ask me, especially because of the early signing period that is in place for the first time.

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