LINCOLN, Neb. -- Michigan State all but punched its ticket to the Big Ten championship game on Saturday, defeating Nebraska 41-28 in opportunistic and efficient fashion here at Memorial Stadium.
Barring chaos over the next two weeks, the Spartans are set to face Ohio State on Dec. 7. The matchup may well pit MSU at 11-1 and the Buckeyes at 12-0.
Forgive us, though, for wondering, after Saturday, about exactly what we’ll see in Indianapolis -- a heavyweight battle worthy of national-title implications or a pillow fight representative of the Big Ten’s overall strength?
Both of the league’s title contenders showed their soft sides in Week 12.
The third-ranked Buckeyes lost focus as Ilinois, en route to a 20th straight Big Ten loss, played Urban Meyer’s team nearly even over the final three quarters in a 60-35 Ohio State win.
And here in Lincoln, No. 16 Michigan State, for all the buzz over its top-ranked defense, looked ordinary against Nebraska’s MASH unit of an offense. The Huskers averaged 5.7 yards per rush and outgained MSU 392-361.
Nebraska committed five turnovers, including three inside its own 25-yard line.
Credit Michigan State for taking what was there, but the Huskers were plenty generous, handing two of their four fumbles to MSU without so much as taking a hit. And Tommy Armstrong Jr. threw his lone interception straight to safety Kurtis Drummond, ending Nebraska’s second possession of the afternoon just like its first -- with an unforced error on the third play.
“You’re not always going to get opportunities to get the ball like we did today,” Michigan State linebacker Max Bullough said. “We know that, but hey, if they’re there, we’re going to take them.
“We’re not going to apologize for it either way.”
Armstrong, Nebraska’s freshman quarterback in his sixth career start, worked behind an offensive line with four of five guys playing positions they hadn’t started at this year until last week. The one starter at his normal spot, right tackle Jeremiah Sirles, missed the second half because of a knee injury suffered a week ago.
When the Huskers tried to avoid trouble before halftime and get to the locker room trailing by six points despite a minus-3 turnover margin, Armstrong fumbled. When they seized momentum in the second half but needed room to operate after Michigan State’s Mike Sadler dropped a punt on the 1-yard line, Armstrong fumbled again.
“We were our own worst enemy,” Nebraska coach Bo Pelini said.
As Michigan State coach Mark Dantonio said, it’s “almost impossible” to win like that.
The Spartans did some good stuff, too. They converted 11 of 21 third downs, including a 27-yard dagger of a touchdown pass from Connor Cook to Keith Mumphery on third-and-13 with less than eight minutes to play.
Four plays earlier, Michigan State had executed a gutsy fake field goal as Sadler, the punter and holder, rumbled for 3 yards on fourth-and-1 with the Spartans up 27-21.
Michigan State calls it the Charlie Brown play, named for the famous gag that Lucy pulls on her little brother’s best friend in the cartoon strip. The Huskers were equally fooled, which is great for Michigan State, but what does it really tell us about the Spartans?
“We can sit here and talk about how they gashed us in the run game or they made a few plays, but we won,” Bullough said. “And that’s the difference between being 7-6 and competing for that championship at the end of the year.”
The Spartans need not apologize. They capitalized on Nebraska errors on Saturday like a good team ought to do.
But the MSU hallmark, its defense, did not perform in Lincoln as advertised.
Can they serve as an accurate gauge of greatness for Ohio State, trying to swim upstream toward a berth in the BCS championship game? And are the Buckeyes even deserving of consideration over the other title contenders after feasting on the bottom of the Big Ten since the first week of October?
This Big Ten season started with a flash of hope seven weeks ago as OSU beat Wisconsin by a touchdown in a thriller at the Horseshoe.
Since then, the dust has settled on a conference season void of much intrigue outside of Big Ten borders.
Atop both divisions, the events of Saturday did little to revive hope of a Big Ten renaissance.