EAST LANSING, Mich. — Nebraska coach Scott Frost expected Daniel Cerni’s punt with less than four minutes remaining on Saturday night at Spartan Stadium to angle toward the right sideline.
So, too, did the Huskers' coverage unit.
Off the Australian freshman’s right foot, though, the ball angled to the left. Way left.
Jayden Reed, a difference-maker for Michigan State on a night where even the slightest advantage mattered, fielded it with virtually nobody to impede his game-tying, 62-yard return score.
The seven points merely knotted the score at 20 with 3 minutes, 47 seconds to go, but considering the heavy lift Nebraska made to get into position to finally, maybe break through and win a big game under Frost, that moment eventually stood as the defining one, if not the sole reason the Huskers ultimately fell to MSU 23-20 in overtime.
“Pretty simple. That’s a punt that’s supposed to go to the right sideline and it went to the left sideline,” Frost said.
Then he dove into a long breakdown of all the reasons he and the Nebraska players after the game were somewhere between dejected and livid — or perhaps more accurately equal parts of both — rather than euphoric in what for most of the fourth quarter was tracking toward a road victory over a team ranked in the top 20.
“We had a spirited talk in the locker room. I told our guys I don’t want them hanging their head. We have a really good football team,” Frost said. “Little things need to change and I said it halftime to the guys, I felt like I was watching the same movie again and we need it to change. We can’t have four false starts from the offensive line. (Offensive line coach Greg) Austin stands behind those guys every day at practice and yells, ‘Move,’ and gets the D-line to shift. Everything we know how to do to keep them from doing it.
“They have to stay calm, do their job and not jump offside. Probably cost us points in the first half.
“We’ve got to punt the ball. We’ve got guys at the university specifically for the reason to punt it, and we have a couple of 10-yard punts that cost us, and right when we need it the most, we kick it to the wrong side of the field and some of the coverage guys didn’t see it and it cost us the field.
“I’m tired of it and we have a ton of guys that battled their butt off today. I told them I don’t want anyone hanging their head. We have a really good football team. But this team has to change the record. I can’t go out there and stay set for them. I can keep trying to fix it. These guys have to go to do it, and we have a good enough football team to do that. But they’ve got to be sick of this stuff. I’m sick of it. It. They’re sick of it. We’ve got to be able to count on guys when we need them to do their job.”
The Spartans, improbably, pulled out the victory despite running 15 plays for 14 yards and zero first downs in the final 30 minutes of regulation.
Nebraska shut down Kenneth Walker III, allowing the Big Ten’s leading rusher just 49 yards on 16 carries in regulation before his 23-yard burst on the first play of MSU’s overtime possession provided all the Spartans needed to set up a chip-shot, 21-yard Matt Coghlin field goal to win the game.
The Blackshirts defended five second-half drives, each of which lasted three plays. Two of them went backward.
“That’s what we’re supposed to do,” senior outside linebacker JoJo Domann said. “Shut them out.”
Junior quarterback Adrian Martinez and the offense got three points on the opening drive of the third quarter to tie the game at 13 and then put together what looked like a get-over-the-hump march in the fourth quarter.
It started with, of all things, a 24-yard strike from Martinez to walk-on slot receiver Brody Belt over the middle. Martinez flipped to running back Rahmir Johnson for 9 on the next snap to quickly move the Huskers across midfield.
NU converted five of its first six third downs of the second half, but needed a fourth-and-1 run from Martinez on a bootleg to his left to extend this drive. Then Sevion Morrison chipped in with a 14-yard reception and two carries for 13 to set NU up with first-and-goal.
Martinez walked into the end zone over the left side on the next play to give the Huskers their first lead of the evening.
That breakthrough, though, started at the beginning of the half. The Huskers dominated the third quarter and took some wind out of a hard-hitting MSU defense in the process.
Frost's team ran 27 plays to MSU's six in the third quarter and held the ball for more than 11 minutes. Though it only turned into a game-tying field goal on the scoreboard, it turned the game's tide, too.
“We had the momentum. We just gave it away, just like that,” redshirt freshman running back Rahmir Johnson (19 carries, 76 yards) said. “A snap of the fingers. I don’t know.”
The Blackshirts dominated down the stretch of regulation.
“I feel terrible for them because the defense is playing really well right now,” Frost said. “We didn’t have any business losing that game.”
They did, though.
Martinez threw an interception on the third play of overtime on a slant intended for junior Omar Manning. Two plays earlier, Frost thought NU had a shot at a big play or a touchdown to open the extra frame from the MSU 25.
“We got exactly what we wanted. We rehearsed that play. I think we had (wide receiver Levi Falck) running wide open up the seam. I think Omar had a chance in the back of the end zone. We didn’t throw it.”
Martinez said he didn’t think he had Falck open.
“Looking down the seam, I’m going to have to look back on film and see if what I was seeing was correct, because I checked it down. I didn’t think I had anything,” Martinez said.
Either way, Nebraska got nothing from its possession.
“We wanted to be aggressive in overtime and I think we had the right play called on first down,” Frost said. “We didn’t execute it. Second down, it was unfortunate, but I think if that ball is a little higher, I think (Manning) catches it and gets the first down. He has to go down and catch it and it’s third-and-4. A play we’ve rehearsed a dozen times for third-and-4. I don’t know, I kind of thought he’d have the inside slant to throw, but any time you run a slant you’ve got to cross the DB’s face. We had that play prepped just for that situation, and again we didn’t execute at the right time.
“But it shouldn’t have come down to that.”
Indeed, before the defense controlled the second half, Nebraska committed seven penalties for 50 yards in the opening 30 minutes. Before Cerni’s poor punt in the fourth quarter, sophomore walk-on William Przystup mishit punts that traveled just 29 and 7 yards, too.
Before a nine-play, 75-yard touchdown drive in the second quarter, the Huskers crossed midfield twice and came away with just three points to show for it. That, in part, came because of four false-start penalties on the offensive line.
“These guys have done so much work to improve and get better, and it hasn’t been easy,” Frost said. “It hasn’t been easy for this team and it hasn’t been easy for me. From where we started to where we are now, we’re a way better team. We’ve got to get the pilot light lit and get over the hump in a couple of these games and get on a roll. That just hasn’t happened, and it hasn’t happened because when right when we need things, someone lets us down. And I’ve got to do a better job.
“It’s the same thing again. We’ve got to be tough enough that, when you get a sack, to stop on the whistle and not throw a guy down. It happened in the Illinois game and we showed the team and talked about it. It’s not just physical toughness. It’s mental toughness to stay set in your stance, to let the quarterback go, to punt the ball where you’re supposed to. To do all those little things right.”
After senior safety Marquel Dismuke intercepted MSU quarterback Payton Thorne on the Spartans’ opening drive, NU gave up a sack on its first offensive play and Martinez was injured on a third-down rushing attempt.
"We've got to be ready to play. We can't give up a sack on the first play of the game in .5 seconds,” Frost said.
Martinez returned after one drive, but the Nebraska offense struggled for much of the early portion of the game.
“I knew it was only a matter of time before I was back in the game,” Martinez said.
Nebraska’s defense had to bow up inside the 5-yard line and force a Coghlin field goal with 63 seconds left in the first half and then ward off another scoring opportunity by blocking a field-goal attempt at the buzzer after the Huskers’ attempt at a two-minute drill stalled and Przystup mis-hit a 7-yard punt.
“We’ve got more to give,” Domann said. “This whole team’s got more to give.”
Nebraska had 26 first downs to MSU’s 12. It had 188 rushing yards to MSU’s 71. It had 440 yards on 84 plays to MSU’s 254 on 54 plays. It had the ball for 37:28 to MSU’s 22:32. It converted 7-of-19 third downs while MSU converted one in the opening three minutes and failed on its final nine.
And Nebraska lost.
Asked after the game where the loss ranked in terms of frustration, Martinez, who has seen his share, including a brutal overtime loss to Colorado against now-MSU coach Mel Tucker, had a simple answer.
“At the top, for me, right now. That’s how it feels. I’ll leave it at that,” he said.