Nearly three weeks ago, after losing to Minnesota 34-23, Nebraska was labeled by most of its fan base as dead in water. The Huskers had dropped their second game on the season and seemed to be somewhat digressing on defense.
But after what could be a season-saving game-winning Hail Mary catch to beat Northwestern and an excellent defensive performance against Michigan, Nebraska finds themselves in their most important game of the season today against Sparty – a game that likely will decide the Legends Division.
"It's character," said Nebraska assistant coach Rich Fisher. "They come out and do their job, listen to the coaches, practice hard, anytime you do those you are going to have a chance...Obviously you lose a game and the sky is falling, you have a bunch of doubters and people don't believe in you, it's kind of a week to week roller coaster situation and our kids don't buy into it."
Fisher's thoughts have merit. Last October, the Huskers were embarrassed 63-38 on the road against Ohio State. With a bye week following the performance, the next two weeks were rough in Lincoln. Nebraska was at the bottom of the roller coaster, but knew if they won out they would be heading to Indy. The 2013 Cornhuskers are in the same position – win out and head to the Big Ten title game, or play for bowl pecking order.
"If anything, they have the mentality they have something to prove," said Fisher. "They have played really well the last couple of weeks. Obviously the defense has been outstanding. It's fun to see the growth. Not only defensively, but all the effort we are getting across the board. This time of year, everyone's hurt and banged, you have to find a way."
It will be anything but easy. Playing with their back-up quarterback and missing at least two starters on their offensive line, the Huskers will have to find a way to get into the end zone against the nation's No. 3 scoring defense. The Spartans are only giving up 11.6 points per game and shutting down their opponents rushing attacks, allowing just 43.6 yards per contest.
"hey've just got a veteran group. A lot of these guys seem like the same group that played against us two years ago," said Nebraska head coach Bo Pelini. "They've been in the system for a long time, so they are pretty advanced. They understand their system and not only what people are trying to do to them. It allows you to do a little bit more the more veteran you are like that. I think that they've progressed. They continue to change and upgrade and keep getting better. They do a nice job."
Harvey's Keys to the Game for Nebraska:
* The Nebraska defense has been solid over the last six quarters of football and a big reason why might be because the Huskers look to be blitzing more. Nebraska has to put Connor Cook in long passing situations and keep changing up the blitz packages. He's not pressured very often. The MSU offensive line does a nice job, so if Nebraska can get to him, it's very possible the youngster might get a little rattled.
* On offense the front five, whatever the rotation, has to buy Armstrong time on third down. Running back Ameer Abdullah's going to be seeing some walls this afternoon, Sparty's run defense is just too good (No. 1 in the nation). Armstrong will need to throw, not only to keep the MSU defense honest, but to pickup some first downs. If Nebraska beats Michigan State, it's likely because Armstrong had his career performance to date.
* Jamal Turner's status for today is 50-50 according to Pelini. The wide receiver has missed the last two contests and much of the Minnesota game with a lower leg injury.
* Turner's replacement, Jordan Westerkamp, is also banged up and questionable according to Nebraska intern coach Brendan Stai. Stai reported the news at the Big Red Breakfast in Omaha. Westerkamp suffered a hip pointer against Michigan last weekend.
* Saddled with offensive line injuries, Nebraska could see the return of starting guard Jake Cotton today. Cotton sprained his MCL against Northwestern and was limited in practice this week after missing last week's Michigan game. His return would be more than welcomed. The Huskers lost opposite starting guard Mike Moudy to a shoulder injury this week in practice. He was filling for potential All-American candidate Spencer Long who tore his MCL earlier in the season.