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Defense could be the difference as MSU girds for Nebraska's dual-threat QB

East Lansing — Three weeks into an impressive start to the season, most of the focus has been on the play of Michigan State’s offense.

It’s clear to see why.

The Spartans are averaging 520 yards total offense, second-best in the Big Ten and 14th in the nation. They are scoring 39.3 points a game and gaining 263.7 yards per game on the ground, third in the conference.

Those are numbers No. 20 Michigan State hasn’t posted in a long time, and helps explain why there has been so much early focus on the Spartans (3-0, 1-0 Big Ten).

With less fanfare, the defense has been doing the job, too.

Michigan State is allowing just 17.3 points a game, 35th in the country. That's part of the reason the Spartans are unbeaten headed into Saturday’s 7 p.m. kickoff against Nebraska at Spartan Stadium.

The play of the defense, primarily in road wins at Northwestern and Miami, has been good, if not spectacular, in situations.

“We need to stop the run, do our best to make this team one-dimensional and force the quarterback to beat us throwing the ball in the pocket on a consistent basis for 60 minutes,” Michigan State coach Mel Tucker said of facing the Cornhuskers. “That's the plan. And we’re not into stats. Stats are for losers. We’re going to execute the plan that gives us the best chance to play complementary football, as far as working together for 60 minutes and be ready to go into the 15th round.”

More: Detroit News scouting report: Michigan State football vs. Nebraska

Some less than stellar stats: Michigan State ranks 11th in the Big Ten in total defense, allowing 381.3 yards a game and it is giving up 269.3 yards a game through the air, 12th in the conference.

But the Spartans have been solid against the run, allowing 112 yards a game, including only 52 yards last week at Miami. It was that victory that showed the approach Michigan State will likely have on Saturday against a similar offense.

In the win over the Hurricanes, when the focus was containing a dual-threat quarterback, the Spartans kept D’Eriq King in the pocket and created four turnovers  — two interceptions and two fumbles, all from King. He threw for plenty of yards, but Michigan State never allowed the big play.

The Spartans will face a similar challenge against Nebraska (2-2, 0-1) and senior quarterback Adrian Martinez. He’s been impressive so far this season, completing 64.4% of his passes with five touchdowns and only one interception. Martinez has run for 100 yards in two games and added four touchdowns on the ground.

“Martinez is a very good quarterback,” Tucker said. “From what I've seen over the years, he's improved and he's gotten better, and that's a credit to him and to the coaching staff. He can beat you throwing and he can beat you with designed runs. He can also beat you with some loose plays and scrambles and things like that. He puts lot of pressure on the defense and you have to have a coordinated pass rush … you have to make sure that the rush lanes are filled out, and we have to have great coverage behind it.”

Martinez is one of only four active FBS quarterbacks who entered the 2021 season with 5,000 career passing yards and 1,500 career rushing yards. Through four games, he’s averaging 326.8 total yards a game, which accounts for a big part of the 481.2 yards a game the Cornhuskers are gaining.

He’ll have the Spartans’ full attention.

“He’s always going to make the defensive line know who is in the game, what type of quarterback is in the game,” linebacker Quavaris Crouch said. “You’ve got to rush differently depending on a running quarterback, so we have to rush together and not be all out of gaps and leaving space so he can run. That’s going to be something that we have to work on at practice knowing that he is a running quarterback.

“We have to slow down the pass rush because they have some screens, too. It’s just a lot of stuff like that, just thinking how they were thinking the situation, and we'll just prepare for it like we did last week.”

Martinez has played Michigan State only once, a 9-6 Nebraska victory in 2018. The offenses weren’t humming that day as Martinez completed less than 44% of his passes and ran for only 18 yards.

Even so, Martinez is looking forward to playing under the lights in front of what should be a raucous crowd.

“They’re a hell of a team,” Martinez said. “They’re a tough team and they’re going to fight. They’ve played really well so far this year and I’m excited to go play a night game and go play in a different atmosphere. I’ve never been to East Lansing. I know that the guys are excited about it. It’ll be a fist fight.”

Michigan State’s offense surely expects keep rolling, but Nebraska and Martinez expect the same.

It will be up to the Spartans’ defense to be the difference, and even though they’re coming off a solid game against a similar quarterback, it becomes fairly simple once the ball is snapped.

“Go get him,” Crouch said. “When you see him, go get him. There’s only one man with the ball. You go get him.”

Twitter: @mattcharboneau

Nebraska at No. 20 Michigan State

Kickoff: 7 p.m. Saturday, Spartan Stadium, East Lansing

TV/radio: FS1/760

Records: Nebraska 2-2, 0-1 Big Ten; Michigan State 3-0, 1-0

Line: Spartans by 5