Michigan State football: What we learned vs. Miami, what to watch vs. Nebraska

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Looking back at Michigan State football’s 38-17 win at Miami and looking ahead to the Spartans’ return home and to Big Ten play Saturday against Nebraska.

Next up

Matchup: Michigan State (3-0, 1-0 Big Ten) vs. Nebraska (2-2, 0-1).

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

TV/radio: Fox Sports 1, WJR-AM (760).

Line: Spartans by 3½.

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Know the foe

Nebraska cornerback Quinton Newsome (6) and linebacker JoJo Domann, right, break up a pass intended for Oklahoma receiver Mario Williams.
Nebraska cornerback Quinton Newsome (6) and linebacker JoJo Domann, right, break up a pass intended for Oklahoma receiver Mario Williams.

The Cornhuskers dropped their opener at Illinois, 30-22, on Aug. 28 before beating Fordham and Buffalo by a combined score of 80-10 the next two weeks. Then Saturday, Nebraska kept pace with No. 3 Oklahoma with a strong defensive showing before the Sooners pulled away and held on for a 23-16 victory. Quarterback Adrian Martinez went 19 of 25 for 289 yards and a touchdown while running for 34 yards and another score in the loss. The Cornhuskers held the high-power Oklahoma offense to 408 yards, but Martinez was sacked five times and Nebraska got penalized eight times for 70 yards. Wide receiver Samori Toure, a transfer from Montana, leads the Cornhuskers with 13 catches for 306 yards and two touchdowns. UCLA transfer Markese Stepp, who ran 30 times for 128 yards in the first three games, did not play Saturday for Nebraska. Safety Deontai Williams has two interceptions, while linebackers Luke Reimer and Nick Henrich have combined for 65 tackles.

Three things we learned

Locked in: Payton Thorne continues to play mistake-free quarterback for MSU, which has allowed him to shine as the leader of the offense. The sophomore threw four touchdown passes for the second straight week, upping his total to nine scores with no interceptions for 726 yards and a 62.3% completion percentage (48 of 77). Thorne’s two fourth-quarter runs proved critical in Saturday’s win — a 22-yard escape on third-and-6 and a fourth-and-1 reach for a first down after Miami pulled within a touchdown. He threw a 39-yard TD pass to Jalen Nailor the play after the sneak to put the game away.

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Michigan State Spartans quarterback Payton Thorne looks to pass during the first half against the Miami Hurricanes at Hard Rock Stadium, Saturday, Sept. 18, 2021, in Miami Gardens, Fla.
Michigan State Spartans quarterback Payton Thorne looks to pass during the first half against the Miami Hurricanes at Hard Rock Stadium, Saturday, Sept. 18, 2021, in Miami Gardens, Fla.

Running ahead: Through three games, the Spartans have 791 rushing yards — they managed just 640 yards in seven games a year ago. Kenneth Walker III has 493 of those yards on 57 attempts, an impressive 8.6 yards-per-carry average to go with five touchdown runs and one receiving from Saturday's win. He added 172 yards on 27 rushing attempts to his total, MSU has had three straight games with a 100-yard rusher for the first time since Jeremy Langford finished the 2014 season with 10 straight games over 100 on the ground. Receiver Jayden Reed’s 8-yard touchdown late in the fourth quarter gave MSU seven rushing scores on the season after posting just two a year ago.

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Disruptive nature: Entering Saturday, the Spartans’ defense had one takeaway on the season, Xavier Henderson’s interception against Youngstown State a week earlier. MSU equaled that on Miami’s first drive, when Jeff Pietrowski forced a D’Eriq King fumble and Quavaris Crouch recovered it. It was the first of four Hurricanes turnovers, with safety Angelo Grose reading King’s eyes and picking him off late in the first half. The biggest came on defensive end Drew Beesley’s strip sack of King, with Jacub Panasiuk pouncing on the ball to set up the offense deep in Miami territory early in the fourth quarter. Ronald Williams’ pick of King sealed the victory.

Three things to watch

Nebraska quarterback Adrian Martinez passes against Oklahoma.
Nebraska quarterback Adrian Martinez passes against Oklahoma.

Containing Martinez: While coach Scott Frost continues to shuffle his running backs, Martinez remains the Cornhuskers’ top option on the ground. The 6-foot-2, 212-pound junior has run 290 yards and four touchdowns on 51 carries. He has completed 65.7% of his passes for 1,017 yards, five touchdowns and his first interception Saturday. Martinez was 16 of 37 for 145 yards and ran seven times for 18 yards in Nebraska's 9-6 win over MSU in 2018 in his only game against the Spartans.

Launching pad: Thorne and Walker have driven the Spartans’ renaissance from one of the nation’s worst offenses a year ago. MSU’s scoring is up to 39.3 a game after a program-worst 18.0 points a year ago. The offense is averaging 520 yards a game after averaging just 330.3 a game in 2020, and the 263.7 rushing yards a game is dramatically improved from the 91.4 yards last season. Nebraska has allowed just 15.8 points and 346.3 total yards through four games, limiting opponents to 156.3 yards on the ground and 190 through the air per game.

Keeping the ball: MSU has committed just two turnovers on offense this season, late fumbles by Harold Joiner III at Northwestern in the opener and Anthony Russo vs. Youngstown State. That focus on ball security has been a big reason for the uptick in offensive production. MSU committed 20 turnovers a year ago, eight fumbles lost and 12 interceptions, while the Spartans' defense generated just 11 (six fumble recoveries and five picks). Nebraska is even in the turnover department, recovering one fumble and picking off four passes while committing four fumbles and one interception.

Contact Chris Solari: csolari@freepress.com. Follow him on Twitter @chrissolari. Read more on the Michigan State Spartans and sign up for our Spartans newsletter.

This article originally appeared on Detroit Free Press: Michigan State football: What to watch vs. Nebraska