Through four games, it appeared that Nebraska football’s results were in spite of itself.
Wins against Buffalo and Fordham came relatively easily, but not without incident. Nebraska had to labor a bit to put the latter away, and muffed a punt against the Rams to boot.
A combination of missed kicks and penalties marred what was a spectacular defensive scheme against Buffalo, holding one of the better rushing teams in the country to just 135 rushing yards on 33 attempts.
Nebraska’s defeats were more-or-less deserved too, with the same mental errors burning the Huskers in losses to Oklahoma and Illinois — abysmal offensive line play and special teams calamities the two anchors keeping the Huskers beached. When Nebraska found offensive or defensive success, it came through overcoming mistakes made by both units.
Still, though, Nebraska had yet to experience a systematic collapse. So far this season, no matter how poorly things had gone on the field, the Huskers could count on a heroic play from junior quarterback Adrian Martinez or a stop from their veteran-laden defense.
That is until Saturday night, when Nebraska imploded in all facets of play, from coaching on down, letting an extremely winnable game and an opportunity to show viable progress under head coach Scott Frost slip right through its fingers.
“[The players] gotta get sick of this stuff,” Frost said postgame. “I’m sick of it, they’re sick of it, we gotta be able to count on guys when we need them to do their job.”
Nebraska’s 23-20 loss in overtime to No. 20 Michigan State on Saturday night can be described in a number of ways that all lead back to the same point. Once again, the Huskers’ lack of attention to detail caused them to fall short in what could’ve been a program-changing victory.
There are plenty of ways to illustrate this point, but perhaps none more critical than the stretch of play that ultimately flipped momentum in Michigan State’s favor. Perhaps most importantly, it came when the Huskers could least afford it.
Nebraska had Michigan State on the ropes with just over six minutes remaining in the fourth quarter. Martinez led an 11-play, 80-yard scoring drive that featured the dynamic playmaker creating both through the air and on the ground, and culminating with a well-schemed three-yard Martinez plunge.
The Huskers had a 20-13 lead, and were giving the ball back to a Spartan offense that had yet to pick up a first down in the second half. The Blackshirts held serve as they had all evening, forcing a Michigan State three-and-out that gave Nebraska the ball back.
There the Huskers stood, six minutes and 13 seconds of game clock away from their first ranked victory over a ranked foe under Frost. Such a triumph would’ve been deserved, too.
Defensive coordinator Erik Chinander completely neutralized Michigan State junior running back Kenneth Walker III, with Nebraska’s defense limiting the nation’s leading rusher to just 61 yards on 19 carries.
The Husker defense allowed Michigan State to collect a measly 14 total yards in the second half. Following the aforementioned three-and-out, Nebraska had a near-100% chance to emerge from East Lansing, Michigan victorious.
“I feel terrible for ‘em, because the defense is playing really well right now,” Frost said.
Until it didn’t. Nebraska’s offensive line, which has elevated itself to a full-on liability following Saturday’s performance, failed to generate any holes between the tackles in the run game on Saturday, and that did not change with the game in the balance. Following a Martinez scamper for five yards on first-and-ten, the Huskers attempted to run up the middle twice, both unsuccessful.
The Huskers were forced to punt with just over four minutes remaining, an endeavor that had already proved challenging on the evening.
Late in the first half, the Huskers’ efforts at a score on the stroke of halftime proved unsuccessful, and Nebraska was forced to punt at its 39-yard line following one of seven Spartan sacks of Martinez. Sophomore punter William Pryzstup, a Michigan State transfer, instead punted the ball seven yards, allowing Michigan State a prime scoring opportunity with 16 seconds remaining in the first half.
It didn’t result in points for Michigan State, but the gaffe did serve as a warning sign. Freshman punter Daniel Cerni and Nebraska's punt coverage team didn’t heed it.
Cerni’s low, line-drive punt traveled just 34 yards, right into the hands of junior wide receiver Jayden Reed, one of two returners back on the play. The punt, as Frost revealed postgame, was supposed to go to junior wide receiver Jalen Nailor, Michigan State’s other returner back on the play.
“We gotta punt the ball, we have guys at the university specifically for the reason to punt it,” Frost said. “And we had a couple of 10-yard punts that almost cost us, and right when we need it the most we punt it to the wrong side of the field.”
With Cerni’s punt angling the wrong way, and Nebraska’s coverage team converging on Nailor, what resulted was a 62-yard return touchdown in which Reed wasn’t even touched. Despite all of Michigan State’s offensive ineptitude in the second half, and despite a herculean effort from the Husker defense, the game was tied at 20 with just under four minutes remaining.
Nebraska still had chances from there, though. After both offenses traded three-and-outs, the Huskers had the ball at their own 20-yard line with 47 seconds remaining and two timeouts. Martinez found junior tight end Travis Vokolek for 18 yards on the drive’s first play, then was sacked on second down.
Instead of using timeouts, Frost opted to play for overtime. The decision backfired spectacularly.
Nebraska possessed the ball first, and on third-and-three from Michigan State’s 18-yard line, Martinez fired an interception that was nearly returned for a touchdown. Needing just a field goal to win, a 23-yard scamper by Walker set up a chip shot field goal, a boot that sent Nebraska to a devastating defeat.
“We didn’t have any business losing that game,” Frost said.
Frost’s team lost in what can be best described as a perfect storm consisting of all Nebraska’s worst fears. The final stretch of regulation and overtime featured backbreaking turnovers, special teams mishaps and poor offensive line play, with bad game management from Nebraska’s coaching staff the cherry on top.
From here, it’s difficult to project where Nebraska goes. Frost seemed exasperated and out of answers for his teams’ continued slip ups postgame, and it’s even more difficult to imagine the team’s overall morale after suffering two emotional defeats in consecutive weeks.
“There’s a lot of kids sick to their stomach in the locker room because they do things right,” Frost said. “The ones that aren’t need to hear it from the ones that are.”
In normal circumstances a loss like the one Nebraska suffered would be seen as a one-off, an aberration of sorts. The main issue plaguing Nebraska, however, is that these issues continue to happen on a weekly basis and the Huskers haven’t shown anything to the contrary in getting them fixed.
The Huskers still, of course, aren’t doomed even after the loss. A necessary response against Northwestern will be vital, and Nebraska will need to handle its business down the stretch if it wants to make any sort of bowl game.
That’s the catch, though. The response has to actually happen and the necessary changes from within need to occur if Nebraska wants to turn its season around.
Otherwise, Frost and Nebraska’s movie will continue to have the exact same script.