EAST LANSING, Mich. (AP) — Michigan State coach Mark Dantonio knows what Nebraska can do from four whippings as a Kansas aide, a pair of poundings as a Spartans assistant and a decisive loss last year in his program's second straight 11-win season.
His respect for the Cornhuskers doesn't change the fact that his team needs a breakthrough Saturday to have relevance in the conference race. Michigan State (5-4, 2-3 Big Ten) will need to beat Nebraska (6-2, 3-1) for the first time in seven matchups to have any hope of returning to Indianapolis for the Big Ten title game.
"Always been impressed with Nebraska and their following and their tradition," Dantonio said Tuesday of a Bob Devaney/Tom Osborne-built national power. "I was here in '95 in Coach (Nick) Saban's first game and saw all the red in the stadium. Hopefully, that doesn't happen this week, and we don't sell our tickets to the highest bidder. I know they'll come in in droves."
Bo Pelini's Huskers will come in as a 21st-ranked team that controls its destiny for the Legends Division title. A 29-28 comeback win at Northwestern and 23-9 victory over Michigan give Nebraska two tiebreaker edges on the path to Pasadena. But the Spartans know a little about comebacks, too, having just rallied for a 16-13 overtime triumph at Wisconsin that snapped the Badgers' 21-game home win streak.
To build on that victory, the nation's No. 7 rushing defense will have to stop or at least significantly slow the Huskers and the country's No. 7 rushing attack. Nebraska also leads the league with per-game averages of 264.1 yards on the ground, 489.1 yards of total offense and 39.3 points.
Michigan State is fifth in the nation with a yield of 267.4 yards per game, including just 91.2 on the ground, and ranks 10th in points allowed at 15.0 per week. That means something will have to give in terms of styles and stubbornness.
"When you look at them offensively, it centers around (quarterback Taylor) Martinez," Dantonio said. "He does a nice job as a run-pass type of guy who can create. (Ameer) Abdullah and (Rex) Burkhead are outstanding tailbacks. And (Kenny) Bell is a top receiver."
Burkhead had the game's only three touchdowns in last year's matchup in Lincoln, a 24-3 decision. He sat out the Michigan game and is listed as day-to-day this week. But Bell and Abdullah both scored against the Wolverines, and Martinez posed problems as a two-way threat.
"In terms of Taylor Martinez, I think he's very, very much the same type and caliber of football player that (Ohio State star) Braxton Miller is and (Michigan's) Denard (Robinson) is," Dantonio said. "They're the No. 1 offense in the league right now. And when you take into consideration who's running that and creating some plays, he's right there with them. He does an outstanding job."
The Spartans got outstanding play in the fourth quarter and overtime at Wisconsin from quarterback Andrew Maxwell, who was 9-for-11 for 81 yards and two TDs through the air on his team's final two series. Maxwell is second in the Big Ten in passing yards, just ahead of Martinez, and has engineered four second-half comeback wins in nine starts.
For Michigan State to win, Maxwell will have to stay of his feet against the league's top sack artists and will need to find some space that didn't exist last year when the Huskers' secondary played suffocating pass defense against NFL draft picks B.J. Cunningham and Keshawn Martin.
"There's no question about that," Dantonio said. "I thought they played very, very well and did take some things away from us. We'll have to work that out. . . . That was the one game last year where we didn't play as well as we had. I think we want to atone for that a little bit."