Michigan State holds off Nebraska comeback flurry
East Lansing — On a day when top-10 teams across the country were dropping like flies, Michigan State did just enough to avoid joining the club.
With No. 10 Michigan State leading No. 19 Nebraska 27-3 entering the fourth quarter on Saturday, the Cornhuskers scored three straight touchdowns and were sitting at the Spartans' 37-yard line with less than 40 seconds to play after Tommy Armstrong hit Alonzo Moore down the sidelines for a 43-yard gain.
But Michigan State's defense had been solid all game and when it needed to make a play to win the game, it did just that as Trae Waynes hauled in his second interception that sealed the 27-22 victory at Spartan Stadium.
"I was able to get a good read on the ball, make the play and put the game away," Waynes said.
The interception put an end to what was a wild final quarter.
Michigan State (4-1, 1-0 Big Ten) had seemingly put the game away with Tony Lippett's 32-yard touchdown run late in the third quarter that put the Spartans ahead, 27-3. Even coach Mark Dantonio believed the game was in hand.
"I thought we had the knockout punch," he said.
His next order was to run the ball. But that's when the Spartans' offense started to sputter and the Cornhuskers found some life.
It started with a 33-yard punt return by Nebraska's De'Mornay Pierson-El to the Michigan State 43. Eight plays later, Ameer Abdullah scored on a 2-yard run to make it 27-9. The two-point attempt failed.
Michigan State then went three-and-out but got helped by the defense which turned the ball over on downs with 10:52 to play. But the Spartans were forced to punt again and Nebraska responded by marching down the field and cutting the lead to 27-16 on a 1-yard run by Abdullah.
The Spartans followed with another three-and-out and on the ensuing punt, Pierson-El went 62 yards for a touchdown, cutting the Michigan State lead to 27-22 with 3:22 to play.
"He's a weapon," Nebraska coach Bo Pelini said. "The guys were blocking well for him."
The Cornhuskers (5-1, 1-1) then tried an onside kick, but Michigan State recovered. Once again, the Spartans failed to work the clock and on third-and-four, Jeremy Langford ran out of bounds to stop the clock.
"Call it a coaching error or player error, whatever," Dantonio said. "But we got run out of bounds. You don't take another 40 seconds off the clock and that is huge."
Huge because Michael Geiger hit the upright with a 36-yard field-goal attempt and gave Nebraska the ball back with 1:07 to play. That's when Armstrong hit Moore and Waynes ended it with the interception.
"Football is a crazy, crazy game," Dantonio said. "Maybe that's why everybody loves it so much. But I thought we were in control of the game.
It was a huge stand for the defense that was put in a tough spot several times in the game thanks to three Spartans turnovers. But after shutting down Abdullah for most of the game — he gained 45 yards after entering the game averaging 166.6 — it was the final drive that mattered most.
"I've seen games flip like that from time to time so it wasn't a shock," defensive end Shilique Calhoun said. "The adversity was going to hit and the biggest thing is how are you going to react to it? I feel as if we did a great job today and we need to keep that up. We do need to correct a lot of the mistakes that we had, but I feel like we stepped up to the task and were ready to go."
The final quarter was in stark contrast to the rest of the game.
Michigan State was in control early, despite three turnovers in the first half.
Connor Cook overcame an interception on his first pass of the game to throw for 234 yards, including 55-yard touchdown strike to Lippett to open the scoring. The Spartans followed with a 31-yard touchdown run by Langford and a 28-yard field goal by Geiger in the first half, overcoming a fumble by Langford and a muffed punt by Macgarrett Kings Jr.
But Nebraska also turned it over twice, an interception from Waynes on Armstrong and a fumble by Abdullah inside the Michigan State 10.
"Obviously I'm disappointed," Pelini said. "We didn't play well enough to win the football game. I give them credit. They played well. We didn't play well and therefore the outcome was what it was. We had plenty of opportunities and we couldn't maximize our opportunities. Therefore when you go on the road, you've got to take advantage of those things and we weren't able to do that, so we didn't win the football game."
Now Michigan State heads on the road for the next two weeks glad it overcame some adversity but wishing it never would have been necessary.
"We started well and played a tremendous football game, especially on defense for three and a half quarters," Dantonio said. "Then Nebraska caught fire a little bit and we had a missed interception. Next thing you know, they return a punt and you find yourself in a game. It is good that you have a close game. I don't like them, but it's good to have a close game and win it in the end.
"We thought our players played hard. Obviously, our defense played extremely well. Offensively, we didn't run or pass as effectively, but things are going to happen. We will take 4-1 and will move on to Purdue next week."