EAST LANSING, Mich. — Michigan State could not have supplied Nebraska with any greater gift, committing a personal foul on a 96-yard interception return by Darqueze Dennard that backed up the Spartans to their own 10-yard line instead of putting them ahead 31-14.
Up to that point with 10:42 left in the game, however, the Husker defense had already allowed 335 total yards and 18 first downs, and hadn’t shown a propensity for getting off the field when it had the chance.
“We had to buckle down,” NU defensive end Eric Martin said. “We had no choice. It was either that or they won.”
In a week that started with the Huskers receiving their Blackshirts, it finished with them finally playing like they wanted to keep them.
Nebraska forced a three-and-out after the turnover. Then another immediately after the Huskers had pulled within 24-21 with 7:02 remaining.
And with the situation still looking bleak, NU denied Michigan State one final first down — holding Le’Veon Bell to 4 yards on a third-and-6 carry — with the clock showing 1:27 and the Huskers in the process of calling their final timeout.
“There’s a lot of things that we can fix,” NU defensive coordinator John Papuchis said, “but the one thing I take away from it is the way we responded at the end when our backs were against the wall.”
Bottom line: Nebraska doesn’t fall behind 24-14 without struggling on the defensive side, but doesn’t conduct and complete the rally without the three late stops. And the redeeming plays happened after that unit was on the field for 28 snaps in the first 15:40 of the second half.
“We say all the time: Just keep playing,” Nebraska linebacker Will Compton said. “You’re out there quite a bit and it kind of takes a toll on you, but you really don’t think about it that much. We just always say to keep swinging, keep fighting, keep playing.”
Papuchis said Nebraska struggled with its run fits, which played a part in the 244-pound Bell rushing for 188 yards and two touchdowns. The Husker defense also was hit with three pass-interference penalties, including infractions that occurred on third-and-11 and third-and-10.
By the time Bell’s 1-yard touchdown run put Michigan State ahead 24-14 with 14:20 left in the game, the Spartans stood 6 of 12 on third-down conversions.
“The biggest thing is we had to find a way to get off the field,” Papuchis said.
A great place to start was when the celebrating Spartans were dragged back to their own 10 after the interception return was negated, and the Blackshirts were presented with a prime opportunity to flip the momentum back in their favor after the offense botched a red-zone chance.
Papuchis said he sent them out with the message that every second, every play and every possession from there on out would determine the outcome of the game at Spartan Stadium.
Andrew Maxwell threw incomplete on first down as Baker Steinkuhler hurried the pass. P.J. Smith was then in on back-to-back tackles as the Spartans managed only gains of 3 yards by Bell and 2 by Maxwell.
“I think when it mattered we stepped up in a big way, like we have in the past couple weeks,” NU defensive end Cameron Meredith said. “We just realized ‘we’ve got to get the ball back to our offense,’ and we came through.”
Two series later, Meredith and Daimion Stafford combined to stop Bell and force the Spartans’ last punt.
That’s what the Huskers remembered most in the dark and cold at Spartan Stadium. They savored it as they headed for the buses, but with the realization that there also will be a bit of a mess to clean up when they return to practice Monday.
“Really,” Compton said, “we didn’t have that great of a day.”
Michigan State, after all, entered the game ranking just 10th in the Big Ten and No. 96 nationally in total offense. The Spartans scored more than 16 points for just the second time in six Big Ten games.
So the pats on the back were brief. The celebration short.
“We can’t give up as many yards as we did today,” Martin said. “We can’t do that in the future, especially if we’re trying to get where we’re going.”
Contact the writer:
402-444-1042, firstname.lastname@example.org, twitter.com/RKaipustOWH