And lo, it once again came down to special teams and coaching.
Perhaps the rather explosive failure to end the game, one where in the space of only a few plays’ timid optimism gave way to the old, usual dread and resignation, will take the attention. But the breakdowns for Nebraska football on Saturday night happened long before that.
Up 20-13 and close to sealing the game, Nebraska was forced to take a punt. Besides a few odd kick returns and poor punt play, one of the weakest edges of the Huskers’ game had done its job up until that point.
To close the first half, it even managed a field goal block to spare the blushes of a poor offensive drive and Michigan State riposte.
However, come the punt, freshman punter Daniel Cerni mis-hit the attempt completely. The coverage unit in total then fell for one of the oldest tricks in the book: two deep returners -- nearly all the Huskers went for the decoy and gave junior wide receiver Jayden Reed an open path to a touchdown.
“It was crazy. We had momentum, but we gave it away just like that,” freshman running back Rahmir Johnson said with a snap of his fingers postgame.
A Spartans team that had barely managed any offense for the entirety of the second half was level, suddenly, almost inconceivably, and set the stage for the disastrous overtime. Late into the fourth, Nebraska football had a 95% win probability. That was dashed in one play.
“These guys gotta get sick of it just to do stuff just perfect all the time,” Nebraska head coach Scott Frost said postgame. “When you need it most, you fall back on your training...I feel terrible for them, because the defense is playing really well right now, and we had no business losing that game.”
Despite what Frost said, Nebraska was not, nor did it need to be, perfect to win the game.
One mistake that will be glossed over came only half-a-minute into the fourth, with junior quarterback Adrian Martinez rolling out to the left and looking downfield, freshman right tackle Bryce Benhart lost his man on the outside.
In truth, what happened next wasn’t Benhart’s fault necessarily, or rather it was both the fault of Martinez, who was spending too much time without a decision, and his lineman, who blew his assignment.
Regardless of fault, the hit by Michigan State senior defensive end Jacub Panasiuk dislodged the ball, which was then subsequently picked up by the Spartans. A moment which would’ve been significant, even game-altering, in most circumstances proved only barely remarkable by game’s end due to the imperious defensive scheming by Nebraska defensive coordinator Erik Chinander.
Chinander proved much of his ability against Oklahoma, where a rather novel soft-zone look confused one of the most terrifying offense’s in the nation. However, Michigan State posed a different threat.
With the likes of junior running back Kenneth Walker III, the nation’s most productive back heading into the game, lined up in the backfield, Chinander had to utilize his rather weak defensive line to the best of its ability. This isn’t even remarking upon sophomore quarterback Payton Thorne, who heading into the game was one of the most efficient passers in the nation.
Walker had only 61 yards by the end of the night, while Thorne threw an interception and only one touchdown. In total, the Spartans only managed 254 yards to Nebraska’s 440. Chinander’s use of some of the nation’s better linebackers proved to be one of the breaking points in the game, with Nebraska eventually managing nine tackles for loss overall.
This isn’t to say Nebraska’s defense was flawless. Early into the game junior defensive tackle Deontre Thomas managed a sack on Thorne, but played far too long and threw the quarterback onto the ground, resulting in an unsportsmanlike conduct penalty.
Just as Nebraska did not have to be perfect, nor were its circumstances perfect, either. On Nebraska’s first drive, Martinez was hit hard and forced off the field. Though he came back only a drive or so later, the contribution of freshman quarterback Logan Smothers was good, if not incredible. The Huskers’ offense was, for a brief time, adapted to the circumstance.
Another clear mistake comes in the form of Nebraska’s offensive line, one of the weakest parts of the team. Despite generally being problematic throughout, one notable stat includes the seven sacks given up to the Michigan State defense.
The offensive line also managed four false starts in total, each on a different lineman, shades of the back-to-back false start Nebraska suffered against the Sooners. The Huskers have done this two weeks running, now.
“We can’t have four false starts with the offensive lineman. Coach Austin stands behind those guys every day at practice,” Frost said. “Everything we know how to do...they need to stay calm and not jump offsides.”
Offensive coaching mistakes gripped the team, as well. On the theoretical level, several times did the team try a run-pass option where the pass component involved Martinez running away from the pocket and throwing the ball over to a waiting receiver near the sideline.
The formulation of this play is perplexing, given that Martinez would always be drawing a few rushers towards him the moment he escaped the pocket. This would give the receiver effectively no room to work, yet this play was run at least twice.
Another coaching mistake came at the very end of the game where, with 47 seconds left and two timeouts, the Huskers could’ve mounted an heroic drive to get the team into field goal position, perhaps winning the game.
Nebraska barely even tried, running a few plays and then running the clock down following a sack of Martinez, with the two timeouts still left on the board. Frost said the reason why came down to the potential cost of a failure.
“I wanted to go score until we took the sack and, once we took the sack, there was 18 seconds left,” Frost said. “At that point, more bad things can happen than good.”
To blame Nebraska’s loss as a function of perfection is perplexing given how much Nebraska both deserved to win, and also how mistake-ridden it was through the game. Mistakes are inevitable, which is not to say random or inexplicable, but they do not have to sink a team.
And they shouldn’t have sunk Nebraska against No. 20 Michigan State.