Lansing State Journal columnist Graham Couch breaks down Michigan State’s football game vs. Nebraska (5-3, 3-2 Big Ten), noon Saturday. TV: FS1. Betting line: Nebraska -3
1. Sam Leavitt or Katin Houser and how they play
For Michigan State to win again this season, its offense has to show some life. I’d argue that true freshman quarterback Sam Leavitt gave the Spartans’ attack life last week at Minnesota after three listless quarters. He should be the starter Saturday, unless he’s decided he doesn’t want to burn his redshirt season. Because this particular MSU offense needs a playmaker at the position and Leavitt looks like he might be that.
Redshirt freshman Katin Houser hasn’t gotten the longest look and could still turn into a good college quarterback — he showed signs of it in his first start at Rutgers. But if it’s about winning Saturday against Nebraska, it’s hard to see how anyone could watch that game last week and think Leavitt isn’t the Spartans’ best shot.
Assuming it’s Leavitt then, the question is what he’s capable of in these early stages of his career. MSU might have to live with a turnover or two, but he’s shown the arm, foot speed and moxie to think he’s got a chance to give this dormant offense some juice.
2. Can MSU keep Nebraska QB Heinrich Haarberg from getting comfortable?
Nebraska sophomore quarterback Heinrich Haarberg is a big fella, a bruising runner and a work in progress as a thrower and QB. He’s definitely still figuring things out. MSU has to make sure he never finds a rhythm on the ground or through the air. Every time he takes off, make sure he feels the tackle. When he steps back to throw, make sure he’s under pressure. Haarberg will throw the occasional interception. He’s prone to fumble here and there. Making him uncomfortable should be the mission of MSU’s defense this week.
3. Creating turnovers
I don’t know if MSU can beat anyone in the Big Ten right now without forcing a turnover or two. Maybe Sam Leavitt will give MSU’s offense enough of a boost that I’m wrong here. The Spartans have had a chance in their last three games — against teams other than Michigan — because they’ve created eight turnovers. And it still hasn’t been enough. Given that the Spartans might be starting a true freshman at QB, given what happened to late leads against Iowa and Rutgers through special teams mistakes, given how the defense has worn down late, and given how Nebraska is playing… MSU should plan on coming up with at least three takeaways if you hope to win this game.
4. Wait, is Nebraska decent?
Nebraska has won three straight Big Ten games since its 45-7 home loss to Michigan, winning 20-7 at Illinois, 17-9 against Northwestern and 31-14 over Purdue. That’s not a juggernaut schedule. Nor are the Huskers’ statistics all that impressive, although their commitment to the running the ball is unquestioned. On offense, they’ve tallied between 312 and 248 total yards in those three games, while turning the ball over nine times. Their defense has saved them, holding Purdue to 195 yards last week, Northwestern to 257 and Illinois to 310, while getting six of those turnovers back. Nebraska is doing some things MSU isn’t — notably connecting on timely big plays and rushing for more than 150 yards in every Big Ten game (other than against Michigan). The difference between winning and losing isn’t that much for most of the Big Ten. But once you start finishing games and believing in your ability to do so, that becomes part of your DNA. Same for being on the other side of it week after week.
5. The fourth quarter
In MSU’s last three games against teams other than Michigan, the Spartans have been outscored a combined 41-6 in the fourth quarter, with MSU’s Sam Leavitt-led touchdown drive last week at Minnesota the only points coming its way. At Rutgers, the Spartans admitted they thought they had the game won and relaxed up 24-6. It took some funky mistakes on special teams for MSU to lose that game. Same for two weeks earlier at Iowa. But at this point, the fourth quarter has become a problem. It’s what’s preventing the Spartans from winning. And I’m sure it’s in their heads. The only way through it is to win one. Doing that will take the punting unit lining up correctly, the defense maintaining its grit from the first three quarters, the offense moving, and the coaches making the right moves — like avoiding decisions such as a needless onside kick with 8 minutes left right after your offense has grabbed some momentum.
At this point, predicting MSU to win is to ignore weeks of evidence. MSU has as good a chance against Nebraska as it did at Iowa or Rutgers or Minnesota. It has a real chance.
Make it: Nebraska 20, MSU 17
Contact Graham Couch at [email protected]. Follow him on Twitter @Graham_Couch.