”After Tony had that one touchdown, I was like, ‘Alright, this is pretty much in the bag,’” Cook said. “Then they made a comeback.”
The Huskers came storming back in the fourth quarter behind two short Ameer Abdullah touchdowns and a 62-yard punt return from De’Mornay Pierson-El and the Spartans were left fighting to keep the Huskers out of the end zone with less than a minute left. Trae Waynes’ second interception of the game finally sealed the win for the Spartans with 30 seconds left as they held on for a 27-22 win against Nebraska.
“Tonight was 27-3 and in control,” coach Mark Dantonio said. “I am just glad I am not sitting here talking about how it slipped away.”
Following the punt return, senior Kurtis Drummond recovered an onside kick, seemingly wrapping up the win for Michigan State until kicker Michael Geiger hit the upright and the crossbar on a missed 37-yard field goal with 1:07 to play.
Taking over, Nebraska quarterback Tommy Armstrong hit receiver Alonzo Moore for a 43-yard gain to the MSU 37. Two plays later, Waynes picked off Armstrong to finally end what almost became a nightmare for Michigan State and certainly a would-have-been devastating loss for the Spartans.
”It is uncharacteristic of us to get a lead like that and let teams back into the game,” Dantonio said. “It happened tonight so we have to deal with it and learn from that.”
As the final plays unfolded leading to Waynes’ pick, senior safety Kurtis Drummond said he was still a little sick that he had not wrapped up the game with a pick-six that slipped through his fingers earlier in the fourth quarter. Still, he had faith the Michigan State defense would get the job done.
”I have faith in our secondary, especially when I saw them keep going at Trae,” Drummond said. “That put me even more at ease because I know the type of player Trae is and I know the type of confidence he has.
”For him to pick that off was just credit to his playmaking ability.”
But it was a last-second play that probably never should have had to happen – something all too clear on the somber faces of Michigan State players as they talked after the game.
For the most part against the Huskers, Michigan State looked like a dominant team. It founds its defensive mojo again after some ups and downs through the season’s first four games.
The Spartans bottled up Nebraska running back Ameer Abdullah, who entered averaging 166 yards per game and was held to just 45 yards on 24 attempts with a pair of short touchdown runs. As a team, Nebraska had posted 228.3 yards per game against Michigan State in the past three seasons. This time, the Spartans totaled 10 tackles for loss and five sacks in holding the Huskers to 47 yards on 37 attempts. And they held Nebraska scoreless in the first half, something that had not been done since Missouri did so in 2009.
“We have been playing good all year, tonight we just eliminated the big plays," Drummond said. "If you look at our past games and you take out the big plays, we’ve played just like we played tonight.
"Tonight we just eliminated the big plays and guys flew around, guys were having fun and celebrating together."
The offense, which entered averaging 50.3 points per game, struggled to move the ball in the second half after decent success early against the Huskers.
“I think we did get a little comfortable and a little complacent on offense and we didn’t capitalize on our defense’s play that they were making stopping them,” running back Jeremy Langford said. “I think from now on, we have to come out in the second half like it’s 0-0.”
Saturday featured a precarious start for Michigan State – eerily similar to the one experienced by Nebraska in the meeting a year ago – as Cook’s first pass was intercepted on the second play of the game by Nebraska’s Randy Gregory after it hit off Vincent Valentine’s helmet. The Spartans’ defense forced a punt and a three-and-out and kept the Huskers off the board.
Michigan State jumped on the board first with a big play from Cook to Lippett, who beat cornerback Jonathan Rose with a double move and reeled in Cook’s pass in his fingertips for a 55-yard score. It was Lippett’s seventh touchdown already this season and marked his seventh straight game with a touchdown catch.
Waynes recorded his first pick of the year later in the first quarter at the Michigan State 37, turning back to steal a pass intended for Nebraska’s Kenny Bell. The Spartans’ following drive stalled at the Nebraska 45 as Langford failed to pick up a first down on third-and-2, but Mike Sadler’s punt was downed at the Nebraska 1-yard line by Kurtis Drummond.
The defense forced a quick three-and-out and a Nebraska punt, which MacGarrett Kings ran back 19 yards with a couple nifty moves to set up the Spartans at the Nebraska 31-yard line.
On the next play, Langford broke off tackle, getting through a tackle near the line of scrimmage and making the final Nebraska defender miss. He tiptoed down the sideline and dove into the end zone for a touchdown and a 14-0 lead with 13:48 to go in the first half.
Another three-and-out for Nebraska gave Michigan State the chance to break the game open, but Langford fumbled and a turnover filled rest of the first half ensued. Nebraska’s drive stalled, resulting in a punt, which Kings muffed at the MSU 24. Nebraska made its way into the red zone for the first time in the game, but linebacker Ed Davis punched the ball loose from Abdullah and Shilique Calhoun scooped it up and ran it back 39 yards. Michigan State settled for a Geiger 28-yard field goal and a 17-0 lead.
Another Nebraska turnover in the third quarter – Marcus Rush stripping Armstrong, recovered by Riley Bullough – and Geiger hit a 27-yard field goal. Nebraska got on the board with a 40-yard field goal on a drive keyed by three receptions for 47 yards for Jordan Westerkamp.
Michigan State came back with its lone second-half touchdown, as Cook handed off to Keith Mumphery, who pitched to Lippett, who raced 32 yards for the score that seemed to wrap it up for the Spartans.
Two Abdullah touchdowns and a punt return later, the Spartans finally escaped a close call with the win with the ball in the hands of Waynes.
”A win is a win no matter how you cut it,” Cook said. “If it's pretty, if it’s ugly, we are all pretty thankful to walk away from this game.”