Published Friday, November 15, 2013 at 7:16 pm / Updated at 7:30 pm
FOOTBALL
Barfknecht: Weak schedules make it hard to judge Huskers, Spartans

Here’s hoping Saturday is a day of discovery for the football teams from Nebraska and Michigan State.

Twelve weeks into this season, we’re still low on true knowledge of how good the Huskers (7-2, 4-1) and No. 14 Spartans (8-1, 5-0) really are.

Unfortunately, there’s no guarantee that this 2:30 p.m. matchup — the de facto Big Ten Legends Division title game — will provide much clarity.

Those fancy records have come against two of the weakest schedules in the country. Nebraska’s strength of schedule, according to the Sagarin ratings, is 98th nationally, while Michigan State’s is 91st.

Neither team has played Ohio State or Wisconsin, the two best teams in the Big Ten.

When NU and MSU stepped outside the league to play someone their own size, both came away bloodied. UCLA hammered Nebraska 41-21 in Lincoln and Michigan State lost 17-13 at Notre Dame. UCLA is 13th this week, while Notre Dame is unranked.

In Big Ten play, Nebraska’s wins have come over teams whose league records are 2-18. Michigan State’s wins are over foes that are 7-19.

In terms of the national picture, these teams aren’t fire-tested. But inside the Big Ten, you can only play what’s in front of you, which makes this game worth dissecting.

Any semi-rational look at statistics and film tells you Michigan State should win by 10 to 14 points.

The Spartans have the No. 1-ranked defense nationally, with no asterisk needed for competition level. Husker fans, prepare to gasp at the athleticism and attack mentality.

Meanwhile, Nebraska’s offense is down three starting linemen and a four-year starting quarterback who holds the school record for total offense, though NU should hit a couple of big plays with receivers Kenny Bell and Quincy Enunwa against the Spartans’ press coverage.

Michigan State has an All-America candidate at punter. Nebraska has a punt-return game that would embarrass most junior-high teams. MSU’s place-kicker is 9 of 10, including 5 of 5 from 40 to 49 yards. NU’s kicker is 7 of 8 with a long of 45, making that a push.

Offensively, Michigan State can’t wash away the stench from scoring one touchdown on Purdue, and that took a trick play. Sophomore quarterback Connor Cook, 7-1 as a starter, has improved (13 touchdowns, three interceptions).

But he threw a bad interception under pressure at Michigan with a 16-6 lead in the third quarter that could have changed the game dramatically had the MSU defense not bailed him out.

Nebraska’s defense, for the last game and a half, has figured something out. There is pressure, swagger, big hits and confidence that were missing the first two months of the season.

The Huskers also seem to have this knock-me-down-but-don’t-count-me-out routine down to a science. In games decided by seven points or less the past two seasons, NU is 7-0. MSU, in that span, is 4-6.

Which brings us to Michigan State coach Mark Dantonio.

Occasionally in big games, Dantonio channels Gary Pinkel, who former Big 12 followers remember messing up his fair share of good teams at Missouri with strange game plans and weird decisions under duress.

Two years ago in Lincoln, Dantonio’s offensive plan was inexplicable.

Nebraska entered that game 64th nationally against the rush and with damaged confidence up front. The Husker pass defense was 18th and led by future NFL corner Alfonzo Dennard.

Michigan State’s first drive, under now NFL quarterback Kirk Cousins, went like this: rush for 6 yards, rush for 7 yards, rush for 11 yards, incomplete pass, rush for 5 yards, interception.

The next two times MSU got the ball, six of its nine plays were passes, only two were completed and many were aimed at Dennard. Nebraska led 10-0 after the first quarter and cruised to a 24-3 victory as Cousins threw 27 times while now NFL tailback Le’Veon Bell carried only 12.

So here’s my conclusion:

Nebraska has a load of intangibles on its side with Hail Mary momentum and freshman quarterback Tommy Armstrong’s eye of the tiger and the Huskers maybe playing for their head coach’s future.

But if Dantonio simply gets out of his own team’s way, the Legends Division title goes green.

My pick: Michigan State 19, Nebraska 14

Other games

No. 3 Ohio State (9-0, 5-0) at Illinois (3-6, 0-5)

11 a.m., ESPN: Two streaks are at stake here. Ohio State has won 21 straight games over the past two seasons. Illinois has lost 19 Big Ten games in a row over three seasons. You don’t need a crystal ball to figure out both streaks get extended. Ohio State 62, Illinois 21

Indiana (4-5, 2-3) at No. 17 Wisconsin (7-2, 4-1)

11 a.m., ESPN2: Indiana has scored 28 points or more in 10 consecutive games, a school record. That ends here. Wisconsin’s ball-control offense and its unsung defense (fifth nationally in scoring, seventh in total) will deny the Hoosiers the time and space to operate. Wisconsin 44, Indiana 17

Michigan (6-3, 2-3) at Northwestern (4-5, 0-5)

2:30 p.m., BTN: These teams have combined to lose eight of their past nine games. At least Northwestern is coming off a bye week and should have QB Kain Colter healthy. Michigan is coming off back-to-back efforts in which its running game couldn’t keep up with the Earth’s rotation — minus-48 yards vs. Michigan State and minus-21 vs. Nebraska. The team that is winless in the league is favored here, and I concur. Northwestern 28, Michigan 24

Purdue (1-8, 0-5) at Penn State (5-4, 2-3)

11 a.m., BTN: Penn State likes it at home. The Nittany Lions are 4-1 at home vs. 0-3 on the road, and they average 35 points at home and 16 on the road. But it’s not like PSU needs an advantage to beat Purdue, which is still looking for an FBS victory. Penn State 31, Purdue 13

Contact the writer: Lee Barfknecht

lee.barfknecht@owh.com    |   402-444-1024    |  

Lee Barfknecht has won nine national writing awards from four separate organizations, and is a 12-time winner of the Nebraska sportswriter of the year award. He covers Big Ten football and basketball, Nebraska basketball and other college financial issues for The World-Herald.

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