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Spartans visit Cornhuskers in pivotal Big Ten showdown

Lincoln, NE (SportsNetwork.com) - The top two teams in the Big Ten Conference's Legends Division square off on Saturday afternoon, as the 14th- ranked Michigan State Spartans pay a visit to the Nebraska Cornhuskers.

At 8-1 overall and 5-0 in the Big Ten, Michigan State is enjoying a stellar campaign under head coach Mark Dantonio. The Spartans have gotten to this point thanks to a defense that ranks first in the nation in yielding only 210.2 ypg. They rank third in scoring defense (11.6 ppg), and they've won five straight games, all in conference, since suffering their lone setback at Notre Dame (17-13) on Sept. 21.

Nebraska is only a game behind MSU in the division standings, logging a 7-2 overall mark and a 4-1 league ledger. The Cornhuskers have won two in a row and five of their last six, the most recent of which being a 17-13 decision at Michigan last Saturday, which ended the Wolverines' 19-game home winning streak. Already eligible for a bowl game, NU still has a chance to win the Big Ten title and earn a date in a BCS bowl game.

Nebraska has never lost to Michigan State in seven previous meetings, the most recent of which occurred last season in East Lansing (28-24).

While the Michigan State defense gets most of the headlines, the offense has done just enough to keep the opposition at bay, averaging just shy of 30 points and 380 yards per game. Connor Cook, while far from the most dynamic passer in the conference, has been a solid game manager in completing nearly 60 percent of his throws for 1,490 yards, 13 TDs and only three interceptions. Macgarrett Kings, Bennie Fowler and Tony Lippett each have at least 24 catches, combining for 922 yards and eight TDs. As for the MSU ground game, it accounts for 190.4 ypg, with Jeremy Langford spearheading the attack with 775 yards and 10 of the team's 14 rushing scores.

The MSU offensive line has yielded a league-low seven sacks, and the Spartans lead the Big Ten in time of possession (34:32).

As mentioned, the Michigan State defense has exceeded all expectations this season as it is without question the top unit in the Big Ten and arguably the best overall group in the nation. The Spartans permit only 43.4 ypg on the ground, which is less than half the amount allowed by the league's second- ranked team, Ohio State (88.2 ypg), and they have surrendered only four rushing TDs. The effort against the pass has yielded similar results, with foes airing it out for only 166.8 ypg and eight scores.

Some of the MSU defenders enjoying tremendous seasons include Denicos Allen (57 tackles, 11 TFL, five sacks, seven QB Hurries, one FR), Darqueze Dennard (37 tackles, three INTs, one FF, seven PBU) and Shilique Calhoun (22 tackles, 11 TFL, 6.5 sacks, one INT, three FR, one FF, 17 QB Hurries).

Dantonio knows his team is going to have to play its best game of the season to have a shot this week in Lincoln.

"I've never beaten Nebraska yet (as an assistant or head coach). When I was at Kansas, that was when the Big Red Machine was rolling. (We faced them) two times when Nick (Saban) was here, and these last two years. It's an exciting place to play, and it will be a great challenge for us."

The Cornhuskers trailed by three points in the fourth quarter of last Saturday's game at Michigan, but rallied to pull out a 17-13 victory. Nebraska grabbed a 10-0 lead in the first quarter, but allowed the Wolverines to score the next 13 points before Ameer Abdullah plunged in from five yards out with just over two minutes remaining in regulation to give Nebraska the win. Abdullah ran for 105 yards and a TD, and he also caught a scoring pass from Tommy Armstrong, Jr., who finished the day 11-of-19 for 139 yards. Quincy Enunwa led the receiving corps with seven grabs for 69 yards.

The Nebraska defense was brilliant in allowing only 175 yards last week, and by logging seven sacks while holding the Wolverines to -21 net rushing yards on 36 totes. Michael Rose paced the Huskers with eight tackles, while Randy Gregory tallied three sacks and Zaire Anderson had two. In all, the NU defense was credited with 15 TFL, but did not record a takeaway, although it did stop the Wolverines on two of their three fourth-down conversion attempts.

Nebraska has performed well in just about every aspect of the game this season, putting up 35.9 ppg while permitting 22.8 ppg. The Huskers prefer to pound the ball on the ground, churning out 246.8 ypg to rank third in the conference, and they have the Big Ten's current rushing leader in Abdullah (134.8 ypg), although he has scored just seven TDs.

With QB Taylor Martinez sidelined due to a debilitating foot injury, and serious questions surrounding his ability to suit up again, the Huskers have turned to both Armstrong, Jr. and Ron Kellogg III, the duo combining to complete 59 percent of their passes for 1,121 yards, eight TDs and seven interceptions. Enunwa paces the receiving corps with 41 grabs for 539 yards and eight scores.

The Cornhuskers allow 374.9 ypg, with 160 ypg coming on the ground and 214.9 ypg via the pass. The defense has amassed a conference-best 30 sacks, while coming up with 12 picks, tied for second-most. The unit is also among the best in the Big Ten in stopping the opposition on third down (.271, second).

Corey Cooper and David Santos sits atop the team's tackles list with 60 each, while Randy Gregory has notched 7.5 sacks, and Stanley Jean-Baptiste and Ciante Evans have combined for seven interceptions.

Nebraska head coach Bo Pelini spoke recently about the comparisons between the two teams, "I think they are committed obviously to playing great defense. A lot of these kids are three- and four-year starters. That bodes well for you. I think they play to their strengths on defense. They are committed to running the football. They are committed to stopping the run. And they execute well. They are just a well-coached, sound football team."

11/13 10:56:13 ET

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