Make no mistake, the call giving Nebraska their game winning touchdown was controversial and could change the way the game has been played defensively for years.
However, Michigan State clearly placed themselves in a position to lose early against a Nebraska squad that entered the game like an injured dog.
On the Spartans first offensive play against Nebraska, quarterback Connor Cook would miss a wide open R.J. Shelton when he threw a high pass just out of the reach of the Spartans wide receiver.
Cook would go on to complete 23 of 37 passes with four touchdowns and one interception, but he would look off his game early as did the Spartans offense that at times looked to get away from their normal offense and get too cute.
All this played out in the first drive of the game and was seen again on the next to last series when the Spartans chose to run an end around with their tight end instead of using a play that has been used over and over again in the Mark Dantonio era.
The Spartans head coach explained the decision on the end around following the game.
“If you throw the ball it can stop the clock if it’s incomplete,” said Dantonio. “That’s always the risk. We ran on that just because we didn’t think they would be expecting it, plus it was going to take a bit longer time to run that play rather than a direct run. I think we had like a 40-second clock and because of the penalty they moved us back, but actually they declined. I can’t even remember the sequence of that. It went to a 25-second clock and we immediately lost 15 seconds on the clock. The two plays leading up to it, we’ve just got to make a play and we were out of position. Players make mistakes along with coaches, especially coaches.”
But while many will talk about the Huskers final offensive play, it was the first series of the game that set the tempo of what was to come.
On that first series, the Spartans were faced with a fourth and one on the Huskers 23-yard line. Instead of lining up and just powering the football for a first down, the play call had the offensive line doing a shift only to see the Huskers defensive front blow up the play and take a possible three points off the board. Those three points would have been the difference in the game if the Spartans would have played their normal game.
This was one example of several from a game the Spartans should have won. However, we haven’t really shed the light on the real problems from a game that saw the defense give up 179 rushing yards and 320 passing yards to Tommy Armstrong, a quarterback not known for his ability to throw the football.
Dantonio knew this failure was critical to his team's loss especially on the Huskers final drive and spoke of it afterwards in his postgame press conference.
“Well we didn’t get Tommy Armstrong on the ground tonight, that’s the bottom line,” he said. “We’ve got to tackle the quarterback one time. They’ve got no timeouts left so we need to keep the clock rolling so we max pressured him, he stepped up and got rid of the ball.”
With no sacks and only one quarterback hurry on the night, there was more wrong with the Spartans defense than just the play of it’s secondary.
Overall, this was a team loss with mistakes made in all phases of the game. Something we’ve seen from the Spartans all season but hadn’t cost them a game until the Huskers final offensive play.
After the game Riley Bullough stressed on the importance of moving forward as this team can still reach their goal of winning a Big Ten title.
“You know, we just said you have to move on,” said Bullough. “You can’t dwell on it. In the end it’s a football game. You have to keep moving forward as a man and as a football player. You can’t dwell on it. And the older guys as leaders on this team, we realize you can’t dwell on it and we will bring the younger guys with us. So that is really what we are trying to do.”
In the past Dantonio knows his teams have won their share of games in the final minutes or seconds of games. Saturday night, he took the loss much the same way he’s taken the victories. Giving credit and blame where it’s due.
“It’s no more difficult than losing on a blown coverage or tackle or anything else,” he stressed. “Mistakes are made out there whether it’s not calling the right defense or not calling the correct offensive play. Everybody is going to take responsibility for this, I can tell you that our offense will take responsibility, the coaches will take responsibility, the defense will take responsibility, every individual player will so there’s plenty to go around. With that being said you have to credit the people we played against and I didn’t think the officiating lost us the game.”
With three games remaining, Michigan State will have a chance to earn their ninth victory when Maryland comes to Spartan Stadium next Saturday. With the loss the Spartans fell to No. 14 in the Coaches Poll on Sunday down eight spots. But while the road looks like a rocky one, MSU still controls how their season can end if they can run the table.