LINCOLN, Neb. -- One play before Nebraska drove a stake through Michigan State's hopes to reach the College Football Playoff on Saturday, cornerback Arjen Colquhoun grabbed a potential interception in the end zone with both hands and allowed it to bounce away.
Two plays before the Huskers scored the touchdown that ended a 12-game MSU win streak, receiver Jordan Westerkamp ran free across the middle of the field for a 33-yard gain.
“Communication error,” Michigan State coach Mark Dantonio said.
Three plays before the Spartans watched victory slip away at Memorial Stadium, Westerkamp gained 28 yards on a strike from Nebraska quarterback Tommy Armstrong Jr.
To suggest this 39-38 MSU loss was determined by the final offensive gasp for Nebraska -- a controversial, 30-yard Armstrong-to-Brandon Reilly touchdown throw with 17 seconds left, on which the receiver crossed out of bounds near the 10-yard line and returned to the field of play -- is simply wrong, according to Dantonio and MSU players.
“We can only control what we can control, and that’s making plays out there,” linebacker Darien Harris said. "What the refs call, whether in our favor or not, that’s out of our control. I don’t think the officiating cost us the game at all. You’ve got to go in there and execute.”
On the winning touchdown, officials ruled Michigan State cornerback Jermaine Edmondson pushed Reilly out of bounds. By rule, a player who is forced out of bounds and reestablishes position in play is eligible to make a catch.
But was Reilly really pushed out?
“I saw the replay,” Dantonio said. “That’s not my job [to say]. My job is to coach. I’m going to do the very best I can. That’s somebody else’s job.”
A replay review upheld the call on the field.
“I barely even know the rule,” linebacker Riley Bullough said. “If he goes out on his own, I don’t know if he did or not. I’m not going to judge that. The guy made a great play.”
Reilly did, in fact, make a great play. Its legality, though, is sure to spark debate, as seventh-ranked Michigan State (8-1, 4-1 Big Ten) remains in control of its fate in the East Division but needs plenty of help to edge back into playoff contention.
Nebraska coach Mike Riley said he thought Reilly would be ruled out of bounds after the review.
“We were actually surprised when they signaled touchdown,” Riley said.
Reilly, a 6-foot-1 junior and former walk-on out of Lincoln, Nebraska, said he was nervous after officials called for a review.
“I think my heart just stopped,” he said.
The Huskers improved to 4-6 and 2-4 with the victory, their 17th straight win at night in this stadium and first over a top-10 opponent since they beat the ninth-ranked Spartans on the road in 2011.
Nebraska gained 499 yards and came back from 12 points down in the final two minutes. Armstrong led a 10-play, 53-yard drive in 2:23 and scored with 1:47 left before the Huskers stopped three MSU running plays and retook possession at their 9-yard line with 55 seconds left.
Michigan State did not sack Armstrong and absorbed hits all night with a makeshift secondary that included three freshmen. Receiver Monty Madaris even shifted temporarily to defense as the Spartans continued to attempt to compensate for injuries to cornerbacks Darian Hicks and Vayante Copeland and safety R.J. Williamson.
“The only thing we can do is tell them we believe in them,” Harris said of the inexperience defensive backs. “We have faith in them. We’re a family out here.
“You can tell them Nebraska is going to be the hardest place you play, but until you get in there and experience it, there’s nothing like it.”
Dantonio said the Spartans simply failed to make plays.
As for the decisive touchdown catch, Dantonio said, “it’s no more difficult than blowing a coverage or missing a tackle or anything else.”
“Mistakes are made out there,” the coach said. “Everybody’s going to take responsibility for this. I can tell you that our offense is going to take responsibility. The head coach is certainly going to take responsibility. I can tell you the defense is going to take responsibility. Every individual player will. There’s plenty to go around.
“With that being said, you’ve got to credit the people we played against too. I didn't think the officiating lost us the football game.”