EAST LANSING, Mich. — The pick-six that should have sealed Michigan State's win Saturday was wiped out by a personal foul penalty that left Kenny Bell a little hazy.
Bell didn't see it coming, but he certainly felt Johnny Adams flatten him with a block after Darqueze Dennard intercepted a Taylor Martinez pass in the fourth quarter.
“I heard a pop. I could see the lights and my feet. And that's never a good feeling,” Bell said. “That's when you know you're going to hit the turf pretty hard.”
The hit drew a penalty, presumably because Bell was considered defenseless. Two officials threw flags on the play.
Dennard's pick stood. But his 96-yard touchdown return was called back, giving Nebraska new life, which it used to rally for a 28-24 victory.
Jackson misses only one snap
Senior center Justin Jackson went down on Nebraska's second-to-last drive, but missed only one play.
Backup Cole Pensick, a regular contributor at guard, filled in for a snap while the medical staff attended to Jackson.
Junior guard Spencer Long said he was impressed by both players — Pensick for his reliability and Jackson for his toughness.
“(Pensick) has been playing center and guard all year. I was really proud of him,” Long said. “I'm also really proud of Justin. His shoulder slipped out and he came right back in. He's just a warrior. I love my O-line.”
Change pays off at goal line
Nebraska had taken its third possession of the game inside the 5-yard line, but it was facing a critical third-and-goal after failing to punch it in on two previous plays.
The Huskers needed 2 yards, so they lined up in their jumbo package (with three tight ends and two running backs). Before the snap, offensive coordinator Tim Beck told Bo Pelini to call timeout.
“I didn't like the look,” Beck said.
Instead, he chose to go shotgun — Michigan State actually called a timeout to adjust to that change of pace. And the third-down play unfolded exactly by design.
Quarterback Taylor Martinez froze the defense with his eyes long enough for Ameer Abdullah to escape into the flat, where he caught a short pass and charged over the goal line to tie the game 7-7 with 2:07 left in the first quarter.
“One-on-one with a cornerback? I should win that,” Abdullah said.
Beck understands picks
Turnovers are unacceptable, but Beck understood the rationale behind Martinez's decision-making on his three interceptions.
Martinez had the right idea on a second-down rollout in the first quarter, Beck said. But Martinez was hit as he released, and Kurtis Drummond intercepted the underthrown pass intended for Jamal Turner.
The second was a deep ball for Quincy Enunwa in the third quarter, but Martinez put just a tad too much air under the pass in an effort to avoid the potential help defense. “They were tripling Kenny (Bell), and I think Taylor tried to keep it away from those guys. Threw it too high and long,” Beck said.
The third pick was most excusable, Beck said. Michigan State blitzed and appeared to leave its defensive backs in one-on-one situations. Yet Dennard still left his man to take away the short throw to Ben Cotton. Martinez didn't see it.
“That's a hard thing to coach, when you think guys are going to play their man and they don't,” Beck said.
Stretch play works for NU
Husker assistant Ron Brown said there was a reason Nebraska ran the stretch play so often Saturday with Abdullah, who picked up 110 yards on 22 carries.
Brown said the Spartans wanted to force things up inside, and the Huskers didn't want to play into the hands of a defense that was leading the Big Ten and ranked No. 7 nationally in rushing yards allowed (91.2 yards per game).
Brown said the play allowed Abdullah to “pick and choose” when he wanted to go outside or cut it up inside.
“When you get Michigan State's defense running laterally, it gives you your best chance,” Brown said. “They're a good downhill defense. So you don't just want to run it up inside all the time.”
Abdullah notched his fifth 100-yard game of the season, logging almost all the work at I-back with Rex Burkhead missing his second straight game and fourth of the year.
No panic from Marlowe
Tim Marlowe said he didn't panic as he tried to find the handle on a fourth-quarter punt after Nebraska cut its deficit to 24-21 and then stopped Michigan State on downs.
Mike Sadler's punt was so good — a 60-yarder to the Nebraska 20 — that Marlowe figured the first Spartans were still a ways away as he picked up the ball he had bobbled and let get to the ground.
“I knew I'd have a little bit of time to pick it up and still set up my blocks, and we ended up getting a decent return and setting up the offense,” Marlowe said.
Instead of a potential costly turnover, Marlowe grabbed the ball, headed to his right and broke a 19-yard return before being tackled by Jeremy Langford with 5:48 left. Though NU didn't score on that drive, it crossed midfield before turning the ball over on downs with 3:12 left, leading to the final sequence.
“I looked up and I saw an opportunity to bounce it out to the right,” Marlowe said. “It could have been a real big one, but I got tackled from behind.”
—- Rich Kaipust and Jon Nyatawa
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