Snatching defeat from the jaws of victory, Nebraska football lost its second straight one-possession game to a top-25 opponent, falling to No. 20 Michigan State in overtime, 23-20.
Despite the final result, many Huskers had standout performances in the game, with the outcome only being determined by a few inopportune errors.
Here’s the position grades from Nebraska’s defeat:
Junior quarterback Adrian Martinez made some critical mistakes, namely the interception in overtime and overthrowing or not seeing some wide open receivers. However, he is also the primary reason the offense moved the ball at all.
When the offensive line frequently offered little help in terms of pass protection, Martinez’s improvisational skills extended the play leading to multiple key first downs. Early in the second quarter, a swarming pass rush was expertly turned into a 45-yard gain, setting up a Nebraska field goal.
Later in the quarter, a scrambling Martinez zipped a third down connection to freshman wide receiver Zavier Betts putting the Huskers in Spartan territory, setting up a Martinez touchdown run.
On the Huskers’ second half touchdown drive, Martinez converted a key fourth down on a quarterback scramble. He was excellent through the air on that drive as well, throwing for two first downs including a 24-yard completion to sophomore wide receiver Brody Belt, where he fit the ball in a tight window between three Spartan defenders.
While the mistakes were there, Martinez was at the forefront of some of the Huskers’ most complete drives of the season. Without a consistent running game and a porous offensive line, the junior played well enough to will the offense to what should have been a win in regulation.
Running Backs: D
Freshman running back Rahmir Johnson appears to have the full lead as Nebraska’s feature back, being the leading carrier for two straight games. Johnson has shown potential, but has not shown that he can be counted on to consistently gain yards, particularly on runs between the tackles.
Johnson only averaged four yards per carry on his 19 touches, with just three of them going for over five yards. When he was called on first and second down, he had six rushes of two or less yards, failing to set up early momentum for the drive.
Sophomore running back Markese Stepp and freshman running back Sevion Morrison also got looks in the backfield, but their impact was miniscule compared to Johnson’s 19 carries.
Run blocking did not provide much help, but Nebraska went another week without a consistent rushing attack, with Martinez being the most consistent ground threat.
The receiving corps has continued to show its improvement in the 2021 season. Betts had a breakout game as a Husker, catching five passes for a career-high 62 yards in the first half. Betts was unavailable in the second half, but continues to show the promise to be one of the Huskers’ top deep threats.
Senior wide receiver Samori Toure continued to be one of Nebraska’s most consistent receivers, with three of his four receptions resulting in first downs, his fourth landing one yard short of the sticks.
Senior tight end Austin Allen played a solid game, but was overthrown twice on open routes. Allen caught passes for two first downs, and was a tough person to bring down when he did catch the ball, dragging defenders past the first down mark.
Similarly, senior wide receiver Levi Falck made an impressive catch in the third quarter, going for 22 yards with most coming after the catch. However, on a play designed for him in overtime, Martinez failed to see him open downfield, leaving a potential touchdown on the board.
Offensive line: F
Facing its toughest test of the season, the Nebraska offensive line crumbled, allowing seven sacks. The seven sacks were the most allowed by the Huskers in Scott Frost’s tenure, beating the six sacks in 2019’s loss to Colorado, which was also coached then by current Michigan State head coach Mel Tucker.
The sacks did not come at opportune times either, not that there are ever good times for a sack, with four of Nebraska’s scoreless drives featuring them. Three of those said drives featured a sack on third down. With under a minute remaining in the fourth quarter and a chance to take the lead, Martinez was sacked again, which Frost credited postgame to his taking the game to overtime strategy, instead of running more offensive plays.
It wasn’t just sacks where the Husker offensive line faltered. For the second straight week Nebraska struggled heavily with false start penalties. Four of Nebraska’s five starting offensive linemen were called for false start penalties, one short of last week’s clean sweep.
Like the sacks, those penalties came in unfortunate situations for the Huskers. A false start on second-and-goal put the offense behind the 10-yard line on a drive where the Huskers settled for a field goal.
Nebraska committed back-to-back false starts again for the second straight week, this time on the team’s second drive, setting it up with a first-and-20 with which it was unable to do anything.
If that wasn’t already enough to earn a failing grade, the run blocking was abysmal, getting overpowered by the Michigan State line nearly every run up the middle.
Defensive line: B+
The Husker defense played great, but the defensive line lacked a consistent pass rush in the first half, leading to plenty of time for sophomore quarterback Payton Thorne to throw. When Nebraska only rushed four, pressure was seldom found on the quarterback.
However, the defensive line played exceptionally well in run defense, and improved on the pass rush in the second half. Junior defensive lineman Deontre Thomas notched the lone sack from the line, taking the quarterback down in the fourth quarter.
Junior lineman Damion Daniels had a standout performance, notching four tackles including one on a third-and-one that forced a Michigan State punt.
Michigan State running back junior running back Kenneth Walker III led Division I in rushing yards entering the game, and was second in yards per carry. The Husker defense shut him down far better than any unit in the country has done so far, holding him to 61 yards on 3.2 yards per carry and no touchdowns.
The second half was exceptionally strong for the defensive unit, holding Michigan State to just 14 total yards and one first down. The reason for most of that: Nebraska’s linebacking corps.
Sophomore linebacker Garrett Nelson had a phenomenal performance as an edge rusher, tallying two tackles for loss, one sack and one pass defended. Sophomore linebacker Luke Reimer led the team in tackles with 11, with one-and-a-half for loss.
Freshman linebacker Nick Henrich also had a fantastic performance, with nine tackles, half a sack and tackle for loss.
The performance from the linebackers was nothing short of exemplary, keeping one of the nation’s most efficient offenses in check for a second straight week.
With Michigan State’s running game shut down in the second half, the Husker secondary stepped up to the billing and took away the passing game. Michigan State had just two completions and six incompletions in the entire second half.
Senior safety Marquel Dismuke started the game off strong, earning his first career interception on the game’s opening possession.
The unit’s most glaring mistake came in the second quarter, on Michigan State’s only offensive touchdown. Running a flea-flicker trick play, similar to one it ran earlier in the season against Youngstown State, sophomore cornerback Quinton Newsome bit on the fake, and freshman safety Myles Farmer stumbled and was beat deep for the touchdown.
Aside from that one play, the Husker secondary played lockdown defense, quelling any prolonged Michigan State air attack.
Special Teams: F
For the fourth time in five games, Nebraska earns a failing grade on special teams.
While the special teams have been error-plagued for the Huskers all season, the Huskers have somehow never failed the exact same way twice. Placekicking went very well, with both Husker field goals being made, but the punting and punt coverage reached a new low.
While initially it seemed that sophomore punter William Pryzstup’s seven yard punt would be the team’s most disastrous punting error, the Huskers outdid themselves late in the fourth quarter.
Leading 20-13 with 4:02 to go and a 96.53% chance of winning, freshman punter Daniel Cerni punted to dangerous Michigan State junior wide receiver Jayden Reed, with the entire punt coverage running towards junior wide receiver Jalen Nailor. Reed took the punt to the end zone, tying the game and giving the Spartans their only second half score.
The kickoff coverage was only slightly better, but Michigan State still averaged 28 yards per return, with Reed breaking a 41 yard return, a foreshadowing for his game-changing touchdown.