EAST LANSING, Mich. — Nebraska football fans have watched this story unfold far too many times.
They have to ask themselves a very difficult question, if they haven't asked it already: Do they trust that the Huskers' cataclysmic mistakes will cease anytime soon?
This stuff isn't bad luck. Besides, I've said it before: You make your luck in this world.
But Nebraska? Well, it makes its own nightmares.
It happened again Saturday night in NU's 23-20 overtime loss to 20th-ranked Michigan State. The Huskers grabbed a 20-13 lead with 7:29 left in the game at Spartan Stadium. Quarterback Adrian Martinez strolled into the end zone from the 3-yard line and stared up at the Spartan student section.
That's right, Nebraska had the lead. It had the lion's share of the momentum. It looked to be on the verge of easily the biggest triumph of fourth-year coach Scott Frost's tenure. It looked like it was poised to thrust itself into the heart of the race for first place in the Big Ten West Division. It's a weak division this year — that's the prevailing sentiment at this early juncture — and the Huskers aren't a weak team. Keep that in mind. They're a damned good team, actually — when they don't get in their own way.
Yeah, Nebraska fans have heard this stuff far too many times.
But maybe this time would be different. After all, Nebraska's defense played at an exceptionally high level most of the night. Get this: With 6:13 remaining in the game, Michigan State had zero first downs in the second half, and 5 total yards in that span. Even the Huskers' offensive line, a trouble spot this season, found some footing in the second half.
In the third quarter, Nebraska gained 122 yards to Michigan State's 13 and held the ball for 11 minutes, 52 seconds to MSU's 3:08. The Huskers ran 27 plays in the period to Sparty's six.
Then, in the fourth quarter, Nebraska reeled off an 11-play, 80-yard drive that ended with that Martinez waltz into the end zone.
What could possibly go wrong now?
Oh, you know the answer. Because it had been abysmal much of the night.
Yep, special teams.
There was one colossal mistake left to come, and it came, all right. Freshman punter Daniel Cerni booted a low liner 34 yards to speedster Jayden Reed, who caught the ball and turned on the jets. At the moment he caught the ball, I felt my heart sink because of a keen awareness of what devoted Nebraska fans must have been feeling at that moment.
You know the rest. Reed sprinted to paydirt, forging a 20-20 tie. Nebraska had all the momentum, then it didn't. It lost basically all the momentum because special teams let down the entire operation again. At this point, you wonder how it keeps happening. If it's not repeated errors fielding punts (no issues there on this night), it's a place-kicker losing his way (Connor Culp found it in this game).
Against Michigan State (4-0, 2-0 Big Ten), Nebraska had first-half punts travel 28 and — get this — 7 yards. The Huskers also surrendered a 41-yard kickoff return in the first half. As for the punters, Cerni and William Przystup, it got to the point where Frost could trust neither of them. Przystup's 7-yarder near the end of the first half was remarkable in that it wasn't tipped. He just shanked it. Of course he did.
To make matters worse, Michigan State senior Bryce Baringer boomed punts into the heavens all night long, averaging 58.8 yards on six attempts.
Nebraska averaged 32.7 yards on seven attempts (four by Przystup and three by Cerni).
It's hard to overcome repeated examples of poor special teams play against a ranked team on the road.
After Nebraska dropped to 5-13 during Frost’s tenure in games decided by seven points or fewer, Husker fans have to ponder whether Frost can push his program to a point where critical blunders don't continually rob it of momentum.
My heavens, this would've been an important win for the program. Holy smokes, this stuff has to be getting old for Nebraska fans. There's a bigger problem for Frost, though. This stuff has to be getting old for his players, too. At what point do they lose trust in the operation?
On the bright side, both Nebraska fans and players saw plenty of signs of progress on a gorgeous Saturday night. The Blackshirts held running back Kenneth Walker III to 61 yards on 19 carries. They came at the Wake Forest transfer in waves, with a lot of gang-tackling, clearly aware of his 8.64-yards-per-carry average entering the night.
Michigan State, coming off a 38-17 win at Miami, finished with only 254 yards of total offense. Meanwhile, Nebraska racked up 440, including 188 on the ground. As usual, the Huskers' offensive line struggled with false starts, four of them. They also allowed seven sacks. But they showed discernible signs of progress in the second half, with zero false starts and an overall performance that one would deem satisfactory.
Running back Rahmir Johnson (19 carries for 76 yards) ran hard and well for the second straight week, and quarterback Adrian Martinez was brilliant much of the night. Granted, he threw a bad pass that was picked off in overtime, but his team wouldn't have been in OT in the first place without him carrying the offense on his back for much of the night.
After Chester Kimbrough made the interception in OT, the roar in Spartan Stadium was incredible. In many ways, this was an outstanding Big Ten clash — outstanding with a remarkably awful ending for the visitors.
Frost was angry in the post mortem. He should be angry. Angry with himself and his staff. His players gave an incredible effort. But the mistakes keep happening — in fact, happening over the course of Frost's tenure — so it seems foolish to think they're going to stop any time soon.