EAST LANSING, Mich. -- It wasn’t joy that No. 10 Michigan State felt after notching the biggest win of its young season on Saturday night. Not frustration exactly, either.
No, the looks on the faces of the Spartans’ players and coaches approached something else following their 27-22 victory over No. 19 Nebraska. They resembled confusion.
Just about anyone who watched the game from start to finish could relate. Michigan State thoroughly dominated Nebraska for three-plus quarters, leading 27-3 with 13 minutes left to play. Yet it took Trae Waynes' interception with 30 seconds left at his own 15 to stave off the Cornhuskers’ furious rally.
“It’s uncharacteristic of us when we do get a lead like that to let people back in,” Michigan State coach Mark Dantonio said. “That does not happen. But it happened, so we’ve got to deal with it and learn from that.”
In a weekend when carnage enveloped many of the top-ranked teams in college football, the Spartans emerged from the rubble in great shape simply by surviving. By downing the last unbeaten team left in the Big Ten, they also reasserted their dominance in the conference -- that’s 11 straight league wins, dating back to 2012 -- and kept their hopes for the College Football Playoff flickering.
Yet they also missed their chance to deliver an emphatic statement, one that maybe could have rinsed away more of the stink from a 46-27 loss at Oregon in Week 2. After a Tony Lippett 32-yard reverse for a touchdown in the third quarter built that 24-point lead, many in green thought that statement was already crafted, including the students who fled for the exits. Even some players thought it was over.
“I was kind of like, ‘This is pretty much in the bag,’” quarterback Connor Cook said. “We need to learn to not get too comfortable when we get a lead.”
At least there was a good reason for the overconfidence. For 47 minutes, the Spartans’ defense turned a powerful Nebraska offense into putty. The Huskers came into Saturday night averaging 354.8 yards rushing yards per game, second-best in the FBS, and their Heisman Trophy candidate tailback, Ameer Abdullah, had barreled through everyone while leading the country in rushing.
But Nebraska managed just 85 total yards and no points in the first half against Pat Narduzzi’s defense, and Abdullah’s Heisman campaign likely evaporated into the chilly October sky. Abdullah would finish with just 45 rushing yards on 24 carries, his lowest output since the infamous 70-31 Big Ten championship game loss to Wisconsin in 2012. His longest run of the night was just 9 yards. Forget the "No Fly Zone": Spartan Stadium was "Nowhere to Run."
The Michigan State defense, which had broken down late at Oregon and allowed some atypical explosive plays against three September tomato cans, finally began to round into its punishing form of the past few seasons. The Spartans never could quite deliver the final knockout punch in the second half, though.
“Our defense took like 10 steps forward,” said Cook, who completed just 11 of his 29 pass attempts for 234 yards. “But our offense took a step back.”
And that gave Nebraska the opening to nearly pull off the stunning comeback. Despite losing top receiver Kenny Bell to an injury in the first half, an ineffective Abdullah and a quarterback in Tommy Armstrong who got knocked around all night, the Huskers finally got off the mat to score a pair of fourth-quarter touchdowns on offense. Then De'Mornay Pierson-El’s 62-yard punt return for a score with 3:22 left frayed nerves even further.
Alonzo Moore nearly hauled in a one-handed touchdown catch the play before Waynes picked off his second pass of the game to end things and continued Nebraska’s futility in marquee road games.
“I said [before the last Nebraska drive], ‘How are we going to make our mark?’” Michigan State defensive end Shilique Calhoun said. “‘How are we going to be known?’”
Last year’s Rose Bowl champion Spartans were known for forcefully closing out games behind their running game, as they won every league contest by double digits. This year’s team hasn’t located that killer instinct just yet.
“We know we have great potential to have a really good team, and it’s just something we have to do through finishing,” offensive lineman Travis Jackson said. “We’re just trying to make our identity as we go through the Big Ten.”
Unfortunately, Michigan State will probably need to win by wide margins in conference play to convince a skeptical public -- and perhaps the selection committee -- that a Big Ten team deserves a playoff spot. The Week 6 chaos helped the Spartans’ cause, but they have to overcome an early loss and the lack of any more signature games before the Nov. 8 showdown versus rapidly improving Ohio State.
This team showed how good it could be during stretches of the Oregon game and for a much longer period on Saturday night.
“If we play like that for 60 minutes, we’re going to be a tough team to mess with,” safety Kurtis Drummond.
It was the last 13 minutes that caused all the confusion.
“I’m just glad I’m not sitting here talking about how it slipped away,” Dantonio said. “Somehow, some way, we finished it.”
In this wacky weekend of college football, just surviving was enough for now. But Michigan State can restore some order to the process if it can tap its full potential the rest of the way.