Published Saturday, November 16, 2013 at 10:20 pm / Updated at 11:47 pm
FOOTBALL
Barfknecht: Spartans still look like they'd be followers in Leaders

LINCOLN — Congratulations to Michigan State for essentially clinching the Legends Division football title Saturday with its 41-28 win over Nebraska.

That makes No. 14 MSU the fastest runner in the slow heat of the Big Ten.

Sure, the Spartans (9-1, 6-0) have three No. 1 national rankings on defense and two others in the top three. They have an All-America candidate at punter and a young quarterback who is learning to make plays and improved receivers.

But this sure didn't look like a team that will go to Indianapolis on Dec. 7 and scare No. 3 Ohio State, the expected Big Ten Leaders champion.

Nor would it likely hold up against Wisconsin, the other team in the Leaders hunt.

The hard truth is Michigan State, which has a strength of schedule of No. 91, was fortunate Saturday's opponent was Nebraska (7-3, 4-2), a similarly untested team with a schedule strength of No. 98 that continues to commit fundamental errors.

The Huskers lost five turnovers, all of which were more handed over than forced. Michigan State scored 24 points in the first 2Ĺ quarters on drives of 12, 8, 22 and 3 yards.

“Hey, we're going to take what we can get,'' All-Big Ten middle linebacker Max Bullough said with a grin. “You aren't always going to get opportunities like that to get the ball like we did today. We know that. But we want to be opportunistic.''

Nebraska also remains baffled by a widely known football play called the punt.

The Huskers ran into an MSU player who called for a fair catch. They lost the ball when the return man lined up only 38 yards from the line of scrimmage as MSU punted with the wind. As he scrambled back 20 yards to field the ball, he coughed it up.

NU also gave up a 26-yard punt return from deep in Michigan State territory and saw the Spartans' Mike Sadler have punts downed at the Husker 9, 8, 7 and 1-yard line.

“You've got to win special teams if you're going to win football games,'' Michigan State coach Mark Dantonio said, a quote someone should paper the walls with in the NU football complex.

What Nebraska did well was go right at Michigan State's strength.

Coming in, MSU trumpeted the fact that it hadn't allowed any team to rush for 100 yards this season, much less an individual.

Scratch that from the press notes because Nebraska, with a patchwork offensive line and a freshman backup quarterback, ran for 182 yards. MSU had been giving up 43.4.

Husker tailback Ameer Abdullah alone raced for 123 yards. He and backup tailback Imani Cross broke three runs of 10 yards or longer. Michigan State had allowed only 10 such runs in the first nine games combined.

“They had a good game plan,'' Bullough said. “And maybe we weren't physical enough. Whenever you're getting gashed in the run game, it usually comes down to being physical.''

So it was an ugly win for Michigan State.

“Go in our locker room,'' Bullough said. “There's a lot of guys that are happy we won, but there's lots of guys who aren't necessarily pumped about our performance, especially on defense.

“We're not going to ignore the elephant in the room. We didn't play as well as we wanted to.''

But for a school that hasn't been to the Rose Bowl in 26 years — and which lost five games last season by a combined 13 points — beauty can be found in any victory.

“We played for a championship in 2008 at the end of the season,'' Dantonio said, “and in 2010 and 2011 and now in 2013 we have a chance to play for a championship. You want to be where we are at the end of the season.

“I think it was a statement for a lot of people, for recruits, for everybody.''

Michigan State's biggest statement might have come from sophomore quarterback Connor Cook.

He shook off a difficult first quarter in which he was 2-of-6 passing and overthrew a wide-open receiver in the end zone to go 13 of 25 from there with a 27-yard touchdown pass.

MSU's third-down conversion rate of 52.4 percent (11 of 21) largely was attributable to Cook. Consider these third-down completions for first downs: needed 6 yards, got 7; needed 6, got 16; needed 19, got 20; needed 10, got 13; needed 5, got 34; needed 13, got 27.

“This was a big-time environment, playing at Nebraska,'' Cook said. “It's loud. There are 90,000 people. I had the jitters the first couple of series. As soon as the jitters went away, I was pretty good.''

The continued improvement of Cook and tailback Jeremy Langford, who rushed 32 times for 151 yards, give the Spartans hope to win games with something other than defense and special teams.

That should help secure the Big Ten Legends title. But anything beyond that for Sparty is in doubt.

* * *

Video: Nebraska coach Bo Pelini after the MSU game:



Video: NU's Kenny Bell after the Michigan State game:



Video: Sam McKewon's postgame analysis:

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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