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Rank and smile: Michigan State should be able to stop Nebraska

Michigan quarterback DevGardner (98) is sacked by Michigan State's Ed Davis as Denzel Drone (42) Joel Heath (92) also try

Michigan quarterback Devin Gardner (98) is sacked by Michigan State's Ed Davis as Denzel Drone (42) and Joel Heath (92) also try to get to him during the second quarter of an NCAA college football game, Saturday, Nov. 2, 2013, in East Lansing, Mich. At right is Michigan's Graham Glasgow (61). Michigan State won 29-6. (AP Photo/Al Goldis) ORG XMIT: otkag109

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Updated: December 16, 2013 6:08AM

There must be at least a few differences between Michigan State’s defense and Nebraska’s offense, but the one that leaps to mind is the number 42. As in, 42 spots in the national statistical rankings. The Spartans are a far-and-away No. 1 in total defense, surrendering a measly 210.2 yards per game. The Huskers are a more run-of-the-mill 43rd in total offense. They’re good and all on that side of the ball, but special? Hardly.

And yet there was Nebraska redshirt freshman quarterback Tommy Armstrong Jr. earlier this week, sounding more than a little confident as his team gears up for a Spartan invasion in Lincoln.

“They’re one of the best defenses in the country,” Armstrong said, “but they can be beat. Our offense, when we’re clicking, we’re clicking. I don’t think anyone in the country can stop us when we’re doing our thing.”

It’s not entirely unreasonable to wonder just what in the heck Armstrong is talking about. Last weekend at Michigan, the Huskers needed a late scoring drive for a 17-13 victory. Clutch drive, no doubt. Huge win for a team that’s still in the thick of the Big Ten Legends Division race. But an offense that’s clicking? Highly in doubt.

Since Armstrong took over for injured senior Taylor Martinez in September, Nebraska has had three high-scoring performances. They came all in a row in late September and early October — against FCS opponent South Dakota State (59-20) as well as Illinois (39-19) and Purdue (44-7), two of the worst Big Ten teams in a long time.

Since then, Martinez got the start — possibly for the last time as a Husker — in a 34-23 defeat at Minnesota. A 27-24 victory over Northwestern followed, thanks to a Hail Mary pass that Armstrong didn’t even throw. Then came the defensive slugfest at Michigan.

For the season, Armstrong is completing just 55.3 percent of his passes and has thrown more interceptions (six) than touchdown passes (five).

“He’s still a young quarterback,” coach Bo Pelini said. “I think he has a very bright future.”

No reason to doubt it might truly click for Armstrong and the Huskers next season and beyond, but the present is about to get a lot more challenging. Take the five defenses Armstrong has faced as a starter, let them form an All-Star unit (using “All-Star” very loosely) and maybe — just maybe — they could come somewhat close to what Spartans coordinator Pat Narduzzi’s group has done.

In five Big Ten games since its only loss of the season (17-13 at Notre Dame), MSU has outscored opponents by a combined 153-51. The Spartans have allowed a total of nine points in their last three games — zero to Purdue and three to Illinois, sure, but only six to rival Michigan.

Narduzzi’s killer ‘D’ is tops nationally against the run (43.4 yards per game) and third against the pass (166.8). Good luck clicking against that.

“They’re a formidable group,” Pelini said. “The results speak for themselves.”

They speak louder, and more clearly, on behalf of the Spartans than Nebraska’s redshirt freshman quarterback does on behalf of his team. Will that change on Saturday? It might. MSU coach Mark Dantonio is 0-2 head-to-head against Pelini.

Beating the Huskers “remains a goal of ours,” Dantonio said, “but I think there are bigger and more important things to worry about. We’ve got to beat Nebraska to accomplish our [season] goals.”

The Spartans haven’t nearly locked down the Legends yet, but a victory on Saturday would knock Nebraska out of the running. To stop that from happening, Armstrong and his offensive mates will have to do their thing at a higher level than they have to date.


Twitter: @slgreenberg

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