LINCOLN, Neb. -- Rex Burkhead was flat on his back, writhing in pain and holding his left leg after the 31st of his 35 runs against Michigan State. Nebraska coach Bo Pelini rushed across the field to check on his star running back.
"I saw he was cramping up," Pelini said, "and I was pretty relieved."
After going to the sideline for one play, Burkhead was back on the field running a wheel route and catching the 27-yard touchdown pass from Taylor Martinez that sealed No. 13 Nebraska's 24-3 victory over the ninth-ranked Spartans on Saturday.
"Unless he's on crutches, he's going to be out there," Pelini said. "The guy is a warrior. You can't ask for more than he gives this football team."
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What Burkhead gave Nebraska was 130 hard-earned yards rushing and three touchdowns in only Nebraska's second win in 17 games against a top-10 opponent.
More important, the Huskers (7-1, 3-1) moved into a tie with Michigan State (6-2, 3-1) and Michigan for the Big Ten Legends Division lead. Iowa also would have a share of the lead with a win over Minnesota. The Huskers own the tiebreaker with Michigan State and are yet to play Michigan and Iowa.
Burkhead went over 100 yards for the fifth time in six games. The junior scored at the end of 80- and 89-yard drives in the third quarter that broke the spirit of an MSU team that was coming off the high of last week's incredible finish to its win over Wisconsin.
"What a difference a week makes," MSU coach Mark Dantonio said.
Michigan State could have essentially locked up the division with a victory against its third straight ranked opponent. But quarterback Kirk Cousins, as he has throughout his career, struggled on the road.
After throwing for 290 yards and three TDs at home against Wisconsin, Cousins missed on 12 of his first 16 passes and finished 11 of 27 for 86 yards. He was intercepted on the Spartans' first possession, was nearly picked off three other times and often threw into double coverage.
"We're a much better team than we showed today and we still have a lot of things in front of us to accomplish," Cousins said. "It's important to push on and understand that so much of what happens to us this season is not what happened to us but how we respond. It's important that we respond the right way."
Nebraska's defense, criticized after it allowed 486 yards in a 48-17 loss at Wisconsin on Oct. 1 and leaky in the first half of a 34-27 win over Ohio State two weeks ago, held the Spartans to 187 yards in its best performance of the year.
"I thought our guys were locked in this week," Pelini said. "I'm proud of that group. They saw today what we're capable of doing when they play the right way. That's a pretty good football team we played out there today."
The Huskers led 10-3 at half and put away the game with their two time-consuming drives in the third quarter.
Martinez completed only a shovel pass for no yards and was intercepted on a poorly thrown ball in the first half, but offensive coordinator Tim Beck called on him to throw anyway.
He went 4 for 4 on the series and completed third-down passes to Tim Marlowe and Brandon Kinnie before Burkhead scored from a yard out to make it a two-touchdown lead.
Officials initially ruled Burkhead lost a fumble at the goal line, but the video review showed that the ball crossed the goal line.
After another defensive stop by Nebraska, Martinez led the Huskers on a 12-play series that lasted 5:24 and essentially wrapped up the game. Burkhead carried on eight of the first nine plays and then, two plays after limping off the field with that cramp in his left cramp, caught his touchdown pass.
"We were in a rhythm, and I wanted to be out there," Burkhead said.
Burkhead led a rushing attack that finished with 190 yards against a defense that had been allowing 88.9 a game.
"You could tell they were getting winded," Burkhead said, "and our guys were getting to them up front. Things were opening up quicker and easier. The no-huddle tempo wore them down a little bit."
Cousins, who last week became the winningest quarterback in MSU history, struggled from the start and was sacked four times.
"There were plays where there was nothing there, no matter how long the protection lasted," he said. "There were plays where protection broke down where I had something. There were plays where it was a combination. It was a total mix."
Lance Thorrell stepped in front of Cousins' pass for B.J. Cunningham and returned it 26 yards to set up the Huskers at the Spartans' 25. Burkhead scored from the 1 seven plays later.
Cousins couldn't get the Spartans into the end zone after Johnny Adams intercepted Martinez and ran it back to the Nebraska 28. A defensive holding call put the ball inside the 10, but Cousins' end-zone pass to Cunningham was too hot to handle and then Nebraska safety Daimion Stafford dropped a bad throw that could have been run back for a touchdown.
The good news for the Spartans is that their schedule becomes much easier the rest of the way. They play Minnesota at home next, go to Iowa, host Indiana and finish at Northwestern.
Nebraska is starting a rugged stretch of games. After playing Northwestern at home next Saturday, the Huskers have back-to-back road games against Penn State and Michigan, and they finish at home against Iowa.
"We've got to win out," linebacker Will Compton said.