Steven M. Sipple: NU's 'Bizarro World' lapses into harsh reality

2013-11-17T11:00:00Z 2014-11-17T18:03:16Z Steven M. Sipple: NU's 'Bizarro World' lapses into harsh realityBy STEVEN M. SIPPLE / Lincoln Journal Star JournalStar.com

This was "Bizarro World."

Bo Pelini sometimes uses that term.

He lived it Saturday. Anybody who watched 14th-ranked Michigan State defeat Nebraska 41-28 witnessed a strange college football game.

We saw the type of game -- high-scoring, for one thing -- hardly anybody anticipated.

We saw Nebraska go minus five in turnovers and not get its doors blown off.

We saw Nebraska, despite the five turnovers, pull to 27-21 on wide receiver Kenny Bell's gut-check, 38-yard touchdown reception with 72 seconds left in the third quarter.

Memorial Stadium was up for grabs. Nebraska's defense was breathing fire. Then, like that, Connor Cook's pass was up for grabs. NU cornerback Stanley Jean-Baptiste appeared, at first glance, to make a diving interception. The Huskers would have possession in Spartan territory. This would be one of a proud program's most remarkable comebacks.

Wait a minute.

Upon further review ...

The refs ruled (correctly) Jean-Baptiste juggled the ball and ultimately dropped it.

It was fitting in that Nebraska dropped the ball big-time in this game.

The Huskers fumbled away what could've been a statement victory for a program that -- you've heard it many times in recent years -- often can't get out of its own way.

Four of the turnovers essentially were unforced.

Three occurred deep in NU territory.

Nebraska (7-3, 4-2 Big Ten) essentially gave away a minimum of 14 points. All told, Michigan State (9-1, 6-0) scored 24 points off turnovers.

In the end, Nebraska's "Bizarro World" lapsed into a harsh reality: The Huskers are mathematically eliminated from the Legends Division title chase. And don't try to sell me the "That's-a-good-thing-for-Nebraska" nonsense. Ohio State has vulnerabilities like everyone else, and NU is a tough-minded, tight-knit team with two of the league's elite players (Ameer Abdullah and Randy Gregory).

Michigan State has a stranglehold on the division. But part of Nebraska's bitter reality is knowing it is every bit as talented as the Spartans, and perhaps more so.

Michigan State entered the day first nationally in total defense and rushing defense. The Spartans were allowing 43.4 rushing yards per game, and just 1.6 per carry.

Abdullah bolted straight up the middle for 8 yards on the game's first play from scrimmage. You don't think that was a statement?

You don't think Michigan State's defense is at least a tad overrated by some folks, including the brilliant Desmond Howard. The ESPN analyst predicted Abdullah wouldn't get 40 yards against Mean Green. But he bolted for 123 on 22 carries. The Huskers finished with 182 rushing yards, averaging 5.7 per carry.

"We've run the ball on them for three years," said Pelini, referring to a 28-24 triumph last season and a 24-3 victory in 2011.

Pelini sounded tired, beaten. He doesn't always sound that way after losses. Husker offensive coordinator Tim Beck looked like he'd devoured poison. These are the type of losses that make coaches want to tear out their hair and perhaps enter a profession that doesn't involve freshmen handling the ball on one heck of a big stage.

Boy, it felt like a big game at the big stadium. Felt great.

Then, suddenly, it felt like "Bizarro World."

True freshman running back Terrell Newby drops a routine option pitch.

Redshirt freshman quarterback Tommy Armstrong throws wide-left of Bell on what should've been a simple 5-yard pass. Spartan safety Kurtis Drummond intercepts.

Redshirt freshman Jordan Westerkamp, the ultimate hero a few weeks ago, lets a punt fall through his hands. Taybor Pepper pounces on it at the Nebraska 8-yard line.

With Nebraska trying to get to halftime trailing only 13-7, Armstrong fumbles on third-and-11 from the NU 18. Michigan State recovers and responds with a touchdown, making it 20-7. The crowd goes silent.

Nebraska keeps coming. Pulls to 20-14. But here comes the final gut-punch. Husker center Mark Pelini's snap goes awry. Armstrong tells Beck he never had a handle on it. Trae Waynes recovers. One play later, Michigan State leads 27-14.

"We didn't lose because of a lack of effort or want-to," Bo Pelini said. "We just made too many mistakes to overcome."

You can't hang this loss on the Husker coach. His injured senior quarterback has been reduced to spectator status. His offensive line is in tatters. His defense is resilient and loaded with young talent, with sophomore defensive end Gregory leading the way. Bo's special teams, well, they need work. They needed to be strong in this game. They were patchy.

But in this Nebraska squad, you see a high-character bunch with a bright future. You could see it Saturday even through the dark clouds of a gut-wrenching loss.

Credit Michigan State. Cook looks like budding star. He threw lasers to convert third downs.

As for Armstrong, I asked Beck if the big moment got to the young Texan.

"I think sometimes he presses," the coach said. "Once he makes one mistake, or if we make a mistake, sometimes he might press and feel like he's got to get it all back in a hurry."

That's human nature. However, "Usually if you try to play that way, you play worse," Beck said.

That's just reality. In this case, an excruciatingly harsh reality.

Reach Steven M. Sipple at 402-473-7440 or ssipple@journalstar.com.

Copyright 2015 JournalStar.com. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

About the writer

Steven M. Sipple | Lincoln Journal Star

Steven, a lifelong Nebraskan, newspaper enthusiast and UNL grad, joined the Journal Star in 1990 and has covered NU football since 1995.


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