MSU's road to Indy goes through Lincoln

Michigan State's incentives this week range from the macro (winning the Legends division) to the micro (beating Nebraska for the first time) to the personal.

For Spartans cornerback Darqueze Dennard, it's definitely personal.

Dennard knows the text message or phone call is coming. He's not sure when, but it'll be before kickoff. His cousin, former Nebraska star cornerback Alfonzo Dennard, won't let the week pass without reminding Darqueze of what happened the last two times the Spartans and Huskers played.

"It's my last time playing [Nebraska], so I'm very excited to try and get some braggin' rights over my cousin to let him be quiet," Darqueze Dennard told ESPN.com. "I'm going to send my little text message to him to tell him what we're going to do.

"I'm going to tell him, 'Watch the Spartan Dawgs put on a show.'"

It will be tough for the Spartan Dawgs, also known as the Michigan State defense, to top the show they presented Nov. 2 against archrival Michigan. They held Michigan to minus-48 net rush yards, the lowest total in Michigan history, and recorded seven sacks and 11 tackles for loss.

Michigan State certainly wants to atone for its defensive issues in last year's 28-24 loss to Nebraska at Spartan Stadium. Nebraska erased a 24-14 fourth-quarter deficit and drove 80 yards in the final 80 seconds, scoring the game-winning touchdown with six ticks to play.

The Huskers comeback might never have been completed if Dennard's 96-yard interception return for a touchdown hadn't been called back on a questionable personal foul penalty against Johnny Adams. Another call went against Dennard on Nebraska's final drive, as a pass interference penalty on third-and-10 gave Nebraska a first-and-goal at the Spartans' 5-yard line. Dennard can't remember how many times he has been asked about the game.

"Getting the interception called back, which was a legal block, and the pass-interference call that was questionable, it was hard," Dennard said. "I just remember everybody was excited, the crowd was going crazy, and when they called it back, the whole stadium went back down, and our energy level went back down, too.

"We still had opportunities to stop them."

If the Spartans can stop Nebraska on its home field on Saturday they'll claim at least a share of the Legends division title and a two-game lead on both Nebraska and Minnesota with two weeks to play. Michigan State then could punch its ticket to Indianapolis the following week if it beats Northwestern, or Minnesota loses to Wisconsin.

A loss Saturday would move control of the division to Nebraska, which has revived its season since the Hail Mary game-winner Nov. 2 against Northwestern.

"It's about trying to earn that opportunity to go to the championship game," Spartans coach Mark Dantonio said. "The road goes through Lincoln for Michigan State. We can't really bring up the past. We've got to learn from the past."

Michigan State's past with Nebraska reveals some tough lessons for the guys in green. Nebraska is 7-0 all-time against the Spartans, including 2-0 as a member of the Big Ten.

Of the many accomplishments Michigan State has in the Dantonio area, two items remain on the to-do list: Beat Nebraska and win an outright Big Ten championship. Fittingly, the Spartans must check off the first to get to the second.

"It would be a great thing for me, knowing that I've beat every team in the Big Ten in my career," Dennard said. "A lot of people don't have the chance to say that."

Dennard and his fellow Spartan defenders won't have to deal with Taylor Martinez on Saturday. The Nebraska quarterback, likely out of the season with a foot injury, gashed MSU for 365 yards (205 rush, 160 pass) and four touchdowns in last year's game.

Although Huskers signal-callers Tommy Armstrong Jr. and Ron Kellogg III both have their strengths, Nebraska could "run anything," with Martinez in the game, Dennard said. Despite a more limited play selection, Nebraska is 5-0 when Armstrong starts and has seen its young defense mature in recent weeks.

"They're much like us," Dantonio said. "People in September weren't saying too many kind things about the Spartans. We've sort of risen from the ashes. You can make that parallel comparison with Nebraska.

"Both of us are playing good football right now."

Michigan State played great football in its last outing, and while an open week could stem momentum, Dennard saw his teammates lock in on their chief goal.

"Knowing it's right here, we all get motivated," he said. "We all have the same vision."

Lincoln is in the Spartans' viewfinder this week. If they get out with a win, their next stop should be Indianapolis.