EAST LANSING, Mich. — De’Mornay Pierson-El just wanted one more chance Saturday. He’d threatened on previous punt returns, but hadn't quite broken one.
“At any given time I knew I could make a play,” Nebraska’s true freshman punt returner said. “I was just waiting on my opportunity and was trying to make the best of it. I told the defense if they got me one more stop I was going to put one in the end zone.”
With 3:22 to play and Nebraska trailing 27-16, he got his wish and ripped off a 62-yard punt return that made things a whole lot more interesting.
For much of the game, Pierson-El didn’t have the opportunity, as Michigan State's punt team either pinned Nebraska deep or didn't give the speedster room to work.
For the second time in as many seasons, Mike Sadler had Nebraska’s number. Last season, it was in the third quarter in Lincoln when the Michigan State punter pinned Nebraska deep. The Huskers fumbled on the first play of the ensuing drive, and the Spartans converted the turnover into a touchdown one play later.
This time around wasn’t as instantly soul-crushing for the Huskers, but perhaps equally disheartening in the end. Nebraska’s offense was in desperate need of a spark when Sadler pinned the Huskers at their 1-yard line at the end of the first quarter. NU punted after three plays, and, after a 19-yard return by Macgarrett Kings, Michigan State running back Jeremy Langford burst 31 yards for a touchdown on the first play.
That wasn’t the only time Sadler pinned the Huskers deep. With about 30 seconds remaining in the first half, he placed a punt at the 2, which put the kibosh on any ideas Nebraska had of trying to make a big play before the break.
Special teams were crucial for Nebraska’s punt team as well. After forcing a turnover on Michigan State’s opening drive, the offense couldn’t move the ball and the Huskers were forced to punt from the MSU 31. It was a good chance for Sam Foltz to pooch one and pin the Spartans deep. Instead, Foltz seemed to misjudge a gusty wind, and the ball sailed through the end zone for a touchback and a net of 11 yards.
* SECONDARY QUESTIONS: After cornerback Daniel Davie went down with an injury in the first quarter, and backup Jonathan Rose got beat for a touchdown one play later, Nebraska was clearly searching for answers in the secondary. Coaches turned to true freshman Joshua Kalu, whose importance this season seems to be growing by the week.
And for the most part, Kalu was effective, finishing with one tackle and one pass breakup.
“Initially, I knew that I was going to be one of those guys that would be the next man called,” Kalu said. “I tried to go out there and handle it as best as possible, and I thought I did all right.”
* PERFECT BOUNCE: Randy Gregory’s interception on Michigan State’s first drive of the game was the second of his career. It came after Connor Cook's pass hit off of Vincent Valentine’s helmet and seemingly fell right into Gregory’s arms. It gave Nebraska great field position, but the Huskers couldn't move the ball and were forced to punt.
* BELL OUT AGAIN: Nebraska’s offense took a hit in the second quarter when Kenny Bell went out with a groin injury, a problem that’s plagued him in the past. He never returned, and NU coach Bo Pelini said afterward that his status will be monitored during the bye week.