Top-ranked schools in Big 10 battle

Michigan State viewed its four-game October schedule as a stretch which could define its season.

After another dramatic win vaulted them into the national spotlight, the ninth-ranked Spartans have an opportunity to come out of the month unscathed.

Michigan State visits No. 13 Nebraska on Saturday in a showdown which may play a role in determining the winner of the Big Ten’s Legends Division.

Most sports books monitored by the SportsOptions odds product have opened Nebraska as a four-point home favorite, with the total set at 49.

The play wasn’t as scripted as “Little Giants” – the fake field goal that helped beat Notre Dame in overtime last season – but the result of “Rocket” gave Spartans coach Mark Dantonio a similar feeling.

Kirk Cousins hit Keith Nichol on a 44-yard Hail Mary touchdown pass as time expired to beat then-No. 4 Wisconsin 37-31 last week. Nichol caught a deflected ball but was ruled down inside the 1-yard line. Replay officials confirmed Nichol broke the plane and awarded the Spartans the winning score.

“My heart’s racing,” Dantonio, who suffered a mild heart attack after the win over Notre Dame, said following the game.

Now, Michigan State (6-1, 3-0) has its sights set on running the table through a difficult stretch.

The Spartans won 10-7 at Ohio State on Oct. 1 then beat then-No. 11 Michigan 28-14 on Oct. 15 before last week’s win over Wisconsin – widely considered a contender for the national championship.

“As you go into this last week of October and then into November, certainly there’s going to be a lot of things to play for,” Dantonio said. “Our goals are going to remain in front of us as we continue.”

Nebraska poses the final test heading into November, with Michigan State in sole possession of first place in its division. A loss means a tie between the teams with four games remaining.

“Whoever wins this football game sort of puts themselves in the driver’s seat,” Dantonio said. “That’s why you come to Michigan State or play in this conference. It has national ramifications as well as conference ramifications. The winner will continue to move forward.”

Cornhuskers coach Bo Pelini cautioned the Spartans to move forward after last week’s emotional victory.

“They better,” Pelini said. “Around here, our approach is that it doesn’t matter how you win a game, or for that matter lose a game, you move on to the next game. You’re playing a different team in a different place. You aren’t going to gain too much from that. I don’t buy into that.”

Nebraska (6-1, 2-1) was routed by Wisconsin 48-17 on Oct. 1 but has won its past two contests after last week’s 41-14 victory over Minnesota. Rex Burkhead rushed for 117 yards and his 10th touchdown in the win, and he’s averaging 127.4 yards over his last five games.

“Rex is our lead guy, for sure,” Pelini said. “I think Rex pound-for-pound is as good of a football player that you can be around.”

Michigan State has the nation’s second-ranked defense allowing 222.9 total yards per game, but it gave up nearly that many on the ground alone (220) against Wisconsin. It had allowed 82 or fewer rushing yards in four of its previous five games.

The Spartans’ challenge to stop the Huskers’ running attack won’t end with Burkhead, as quarterback Taylor Martinez has run for nine touchdowns.

The return of sophomore defensive end William Gholston may provide some help. The Big Ten suspended Gholston one game after he threw a punch against Michigan.

The Spartans went without a penalty on either side of the ball last week, while also proving their offense can be just as dangerous as their defense.

Cousins, who set a school record with his 23rd victory, hit Keshawn Martin and B.J. Cunningham with touchdown passes. Cunningham ranks third in the conference averaging 103.3 yards receiving.

Nebraska’s defense ranks eighth in the conference allowing 355.7 yards and ninth giving up 25.3 points per game. Pelini said the Huskers will be prepared to handle everything the Spartans throw at them.

“Our guys understand what is at stake,” Pelini said. “Every game is a must win, that’s how we look at it. If you win all of your games, you control your own destiny. If you don’t, then you lose control. It’s pretty obvious. Our guys understand what is at stake.”

Nebraska is unbeaten in five all-time meetings against Michigan State, last winning 17-3 on Dec. 29, 2003, in the Alamo Bowl.

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