Despite its best efforts, Nebraska had a shot to rally late after spotting the nation’s top defense five turnovers. But it was the Michigan State offense that closed the door on the Legends division in Lincoln.
Five turnovers doomed the Huskers, while the Spartans offense cashed the giveaways into 24 points on their way to a 41-28 win over Nebraska and a share of the Legends division championship. Trailing 27-21 heading into the fourth quarter, the Spartans converted a fake field goal on fourth-and-1 on an eventual touchdown drive, and got an insurance touchdown from running back Jeremy Langford with 1:58 to play to nearly punch their ticket to Indianapolis.
Despite the near comeback, this was the same old song and dance from the Huskers unfortunately. Build an early hole, stage a comeback, and put it all on the line in the final 15 minutes. This time, the final quarter was unkind to the cardiac Huskers as Michigan State exercised its Nebraska demons in one of the 14th ranked Spartans most memorable wins in recent history. Heading into the game, Michigan State was 0-7 all-time against Nebraska. The one in 1-7 means the Spartans have a lot to play for over the next few weeks, while Nebraska will rue missed chances yet again.
Nebraska turned it over twice on their first two possessions and spotted Michigan State a 3-0 lead on Michael Geiger’s 45-yard field goal on the Spartans opening possession. After the Blackshirts held Michigan State, Jordan Westerkamp provided the third turnover on the day as he fumbled the punt and the Spartans recovered at the Nebraska 8. Two plays later, R.J. Shelton ran in from five yards out and Michigan State had a 10-0 lead with just under five minutes left in the first quarter.
Give the Huskers credit though, as Tommy Armstrong led Nebraska on a 5-play, 75 yard drive that ended with his 32-yard touchdown pass to Sam Burtch and suddenly it was a game against at 10-7. Michigan State answered with its best drive of the day, going 17 plays for 74 yards before Geiger knocked through a 25-yard field goal and extended the lead to 13-7. The teams would exchange punts before Nebraska’s fourth turnover gave the Spartans a 13-point lead heading to the break.
Facing a third-and-13 on their own 16, the Huskers decided to try an option run after Michigan State has used its third and final timeout with just over a minute before halftime. Armstrong fumbled, the Spartans recovered at the Nebraska 22, and three plays later Langford found the end zone for the second time from 6 yards out and it was a 20-7 Michigan State lead after 30 minutes. Still, Nebraska was not out of it despite their best efforts.
Michigan State received the second half kickoff but went immediately backwards after a couple of penalties and punted. Nebraska responded with a 51-yard touchdown run from Imani Cross to cut the deficit to 20-14. But then the ol’ turnover machine cranked up again for Nebraska and Michigan State recovered a bobbled snap at the Nebraska 3. On the very next play, Langford barreled in from 3 yards out and it was 27-14 Michigan State, with 24 of the Spartans 27 points coming directly from Husker turnovers. But still, it was not over.
An 11-play, 79 yard drive got the Huskers back to within 27-21 after Armstrong connected with Kenny Bell for an amazing 38-yard touchdown pass with 1:12 left in the third quarter. Michigan State couldn’t answer and Nebraska had the ball, down six, to start the fourth quarter. Nebraska couldn’t answer however, and Michigan State marched 75 yards in 10 plays to take a 34-21 lead after Connor Cook found Keith Mumphrey over the middle on a third-and-13 to plunge the dagger into Nebraska’s hopes of a comeback. Nebraska couldn’t answer and the Spartans tacked on a 37-yard touchdown run from Langford to make it 41-21 with 1:58 to play. Ron Kellogg then led a 12-play, 75 yard scoring drive that ended in his 12-yard touchdown pass to Abdullah with ten seconds remaining to provide for the final margin.
All in all, I’d say 13 points was probably an accurate reflection of the difference between the two teams, at least today. Nebraska had five turnovers on the day and forced zero from Michigan State. The Spartans converted 11 of 21 third downs into first downs. And if that’s not enough, the Spartans held a nearly 17 minute time of possession advantage at 38:37 to 21:23, including 11 minute alone in the fourth quarter. Nebraska was able to move the ball on the nation’s top defense and proved that maybe those stats were a bit inflated against some poor teams. But in the end, it really doesn’t matter when you are in your own way for most of the afternoon and run out of gas in the final quarter.
This was perhaps the antithesis of the previous, much ballyhooed comebacks. The Huskers got down early due to turnovers. They clawed back and set themselves up for a memorable fourth quarter. But this time, it was Cook, Langford, and the Michigan State offense that rose to the occasion and won the game while the Nebraska offense came up short in the final stretches. The fourth down fake field goal gave Michigan State a chance to extend their lead to 34-21 instead of 30-21, but seemed to set the table to Cook’s dart to Mumphrey with 7:56 to play.
The offense moved the ball on the nation’s top ranked defense to the tune of 392 yards, with 182 yards on the ground and 123 more from Abdullah as he cracked the country’s best run defense. The Blackshirts faced 80 offensive plays from Michigan State and allowed 361 yards, certainly doing their part, but they couldn’t get the big stop when it mattered most. It’s a tough lesson to learn for a young team, especially on defense, but one that could serve them well down the road.
The question is, when will the self-inflicted mistakes and lack of ball security change? It would be one thing if Michigan State caused all or even most of the five turnovers, but the reality is Michigan State benefitted from Nebraska making costly mistakes. A bobbled pitch. A bobbled quarterback exchange. A fumbled punt. An interception thrown to an incorrectly run route. Those are mistakes that can’t be made by an offense and it cost Nebraska a shot at a memorable win. On to the grades we go…
Such a mixed bag for a unit that committed five turnovers, but averaged 6.1 yards per play against the nation’s top defense. The 28 points are tied for the most that the Spartans have given up to anyone this season, matching Indiana’s output against Michigan State back on October 12. Nebraska racked up 182 yards on the ground, with 123 of those coming from Abdullah and averaged 5.7 yards per carry. Sam Burtch proved to be a nice surprise in leading the receivers, with five catches for 86 yards and touchdown while Bell had seven catches for 81 yards and a score as well. The passing game had its moments, but the interception and near missed proved to be costly.
Armstrong’s pass to Jake Long on a key third-and-11 early in the fourth quarter would have given Nebraska a first down, but Long couldn’t hold on and the Huskers had to punt. Michigan State responded with a crucial touchdown drive and that was the ball game. This was not the play that won or lost the game clearly, but it represents where Nebraska had a chance to keep momentum but failed to do so. All game long, Michigan State weathered the Nebraska storm and stayed a step ahead.
Four offensive turnovers, which were largely avoidable and self-inflicted are inexcusable, whether the opponent is Michigan State or Southern Mississippi. Nebraska was able to turn it over four times against Northwestern and win, but not against the 14th ranked team in the country. The offense, while effective on paper and in key spots, proved to be Nebraska’s biggest hurdle. We’ll give them a C-.
Played the run fairly well until the fourth quarter when the time of possession and plays against started to mount. Randy Gregory was again a menace to stop, coming through with 8 tackles and another sack, as the defense tallied nine tackles for loss on the day. David Santos had eight tackles, Michael Rose added seven more for the linebackers, but the story may have been the third straight game with zero forced turnovers.
Nebraska so badly needed to force a turnover and nearly got a huge one late in the third quarter, but it was correctly determined that Stanley Jean-Baptiste trapped the ball and the Spartans dodged a bullet deep in their own end. A minus-five differential in turnover margin is certainly not on the defense, but the Blackshirts missed a couple of chances to swing the pendulum back to their side. Langford ended with 32 carries for 151 yards and three touchdowns, as the Spartans ground attack was steady to the tune of 168 yards and four touchdowns on the day.
Cook wasn’t spectacular, but he made the throws when necessary. Finishing 15-of-31 for 193 yards and a touchdown, Cook repeatedly made throws into tight spaces and converted some key third downs. Nebraska’s inability to stop Michigan State on third downs is probably the second biggest reason why this game was lost. It allowed the Spartans to continue long drives and take advantage of a huge disparity in time of possession. Overall, the defense played one of its better games of the season. But short fields led to Michigan State points and kept the game just out of reach. We’ll give the defense a B.
The Special Teams
Punt returns are a nightmare for this team and it doesn’t look like it’s getting any better. Whether it’s Westerkamp, Bell, Jamal Turner, or someone else—the Huskers are unable to get anything positive on punt returns. The kick return game was average and failed to return any kicks past their own 30. Sam Foltz had an up-and-down kind of day, shanking a 26-yard punt in the fourth quarter, but also dropping a 59-yarder in the first quarter that momentarily flipped field position.
Nebraska used to have such a distinct advantage in the kicking game and even in special teams. Michigan State got a 26-yard punt return from Macgarrett Kings to get out of the shadow of their own goal posts in the third quarter, while Mike Sadler dropped four punts inside Nebraska’s 20 yard line. In the first half alone, Michigan State’s average field position was midfield, and Nebraska’s was their own 17. The Huskers were whipped in the special teams game, they get a D-.
We saw the great resolve and fight that this Nebraska team has been known for over the past two seasons. But, we also saw the same team that is unable to hold onto the football and set itself up with a much easier chance to win these important games. Over the last three games, Nebraska’s turnover margin is an eye-popping minus-12. The fact that Nebraska had a very real shot to win all three of those games is nothing short of a miracle. And in fact, Nebraska won one of those games on a miracle play, so perhaps therein lies the paradox
Michigan State did a much better job of protecting Cook in the second half and he responded by leading two big touchdown drives that salted the game away. When the Spartans weren’t afforded the short fields they were given in the first half, the pressure shifted to their offense and they answered when it was paramount that they do so. This Spartans team learned from their disastrous season last year when it probably could have won just about every game on its schedule instead of a 7-6 season that was the end result. It will be interesting to see what the Spartans can do against Ohio State in the Big Ten championship game, should the Spartans win one of their final two games against Northwestern and Minnesota.
Lost in the shuffle perhaps, is that Ameer Abdullah might be Nebraska’s best running back since Ahman Green. With two regular season games to play, Abdullah has 1,336 yards rushing, the sixth-most over ten games in a season in school history. It’s the ninth time this season Abdullah has rushed for 100 yards or more in a game as he also added a 12-yard touchdown grab in the final moments. Abdullah is a truly special back, who doesn’t lose yardage and often turns little creases into big running lanes. Let’s hope for his sake, he can avoid a sudden senior curse at Nebraska and put up similar numbers in 2014.
Until Nebraska can stop being its own worst enemy, especially in terms of turnovers, they will not return to elite status. Although a return trip to Indianapolis is not in the cards, the Huskers can still finish with 10 wins and its first bowl win since their 33-0 win over Arizona in the 2009 Holiday Bowl. Whether the season ends with a flourish or a flounder remains to be seen, but Nebraska has games at Penn State and at home against Iowa to prove that it’s still near the top of the conference. Will it ever get over the hump? It seems that question’s been posed for a few years now with the answer still being the same.