Now that looked like football.

Football the way Mike Riley wants it — for the most part, anyway.

Especially the last part. Those final 55 scintillating seconds, when Nebraska seemed destined for another close-shave loss. Yet another deep cut.

"We didn't think about the past; we just thought about tonight," said Husker running back Imani Cross, who ran low and hard and with ferociousness against a good defense. 

The way Nebraska played Saturday night, in so many ways, looked like football. Yeah, that's a Riley phrase. On this occasion, I don't think he'll mind if I steal it. 

Nebraska 39, Michigan State 38.

"I'll just take it as this: If you keep working, you can do good things," said the 62-year-old Riley, a classy veteran who wasn't much different after a colossal and cathartic victory than he was following the gut-punch losses that largely defined his first season in Lincoln — until Saturday, that is.

Nebraska improved to 4-6 overall (2-4 Big Ten) and probably knocked seventh-ranked Michigan State (8-1, 4-1) out of the national championship race. But forget all that, this victory was indeed needed — a purging of frustrations and ill feelings from emotional losses and resulting confusion and understandable negativity from a demanding and very hungry fan base.

But then there was this: The familiar "Go Big Red" chant echoed into a chilly night right before Michigan State punter Tyler O'Connor pinned Nebraska at its 9-yard line with 55 seconds left and Michigan State clinging to a 38-33 lead.

Maybe I shouldn't be surprised the Big Red masses — all but a few — stood firm and loud behind their boys. Yeah, the fans seem much more hungry than beaten down by losing. The night showed us once again Nebraska is a special place and the football program will be forever special, if cared for correctly.

Husker fans crave good, sound football. They saw plenty of it on this night.

Riley told his players they wouldn't need to be superhuman to defeat Michigan State, but that they would need "a really good human effort." Nobody can question Nebraska's effort.

"They never quit," Riley said. "That's it."

The win speaks volumes about the team's leadership and character, particularly considering the rugged nature of this season. 

Yes, this looked like football.

I think Riley will be pleased.

It looked like fabulous football when, to begin Nebraska's last-gasp drive, Tommy Armstrong gunned strikes of 28 and 33 yards to roommate Jordan Westerkamp.

Then, of course, Nebraska caught a break. Finally.

Brandon Reilly came from out of bounds to catch the game winner — a 30-yard beauty from Armstrong. Reilly didn't appear to be forced out by the defensive back. That would usually be a problem — as in, no catch. But in this case, football gods finally smiled on Riley's crew. The zebras ultimately ruled touchdown.

And, after a tense final 14 seconds, Nebraska ultimately prevailed.

"This was big," said Nebraska offensive coordinator Danny Langsdorf. "Our team, although it's been hard, has been very good about practice. It's pretty easy to moan and groan and complain and get down. I think we just really harped on our guys about believing we could win.

"I think the last three, four weeks we've had excellent practices, even after the losses. We had a disappointing week last week (in a loss at Purdue). But Monday was a very good practice. Good intentions, good effort, good energy. They just have stayed with it.

"Beating anybody today was going to be a big deal. And you go beat the No. 7 team in the country, that's a great feeling."

It was a great feeling, because Nebraska pounded out 179 rushing yards — 5.0 per carry — against the nation's 19th-ranked rush defense. That's after averaging 2.4 yards per carry in losses to Northwestern and Purdue. Credit Cross, but credit everyone. It has to be a team effort to batter the Spartans in that manner.

It was a great feeling, because Armstrong once again showed his fighter mentality.

It was a great feeling for a former walk-on, Reilly, who craves big moments. He absolutely wants the ball when the game is on the line. And boom, there it was.

Nebraska's defense predictably struggled to get a pass rush. Connor Cook carved up the secondary. But the defense did get the two late stops, which led to one heck of a party after the final gun.

Nebraska earned that party. Earned that chance to blow off steam.

The win is "certainly a sign of who we want to be and what we want to do," said Riley, who mostly wanted to stay in the moment.

Who could blame him? What a moment it was. 

Reach the writer at 402-473-7440 or ssipple@journalstar.com. On Twitter @HuskerExtraSip.