Lincoln, Neb. — Michigan State has been through the elation of winning a game in the final seconds this season.
On Saturday night against a reeling Nebraska team, the Spartans felt the sting of the other end of a dramatic finish.
Leading by 12 points with 4:16 to play, No. 6 Michigan State watched as Nebraska came storming back, scoring 13 points in less than four minutes — the winning touchdown on a controversial play with 17 seconds left in the game — to pull off a stunning 39-38 victory in front of 90,094 at Memorial Stadium.
"Just disappointed," Michigan State quarterback Connor Cook said. "That's the only thing that comes to mind — disappointment. Obviously to be so close and have the game in your hands and to see it ripped away like that in a short amount time kind of hurts."
The victory ended Michigan State's 12-game winning streak, including a 12-game road winning streak in the Big Ten. The Spartans now must win their final three games to win the Big Ten East and reach the conference championship game.
It appeared Cook's record-setting night was going to be enough to keep Michigan State (8-1, 4-1 Big Ten) among the ranks of the unbeaten and on a path toward the College Football Playoff. He threw for 335 yards and four touchdowns, surpassing Kirk Cousins as Michigan State's all-time leader in touchdown passes with 68. It was also the fourth straight game he had thrown for more than 300 yards.
But after Gerald Holmes scored on a 1-yard run to give the Spartans a 38-26 lead with 4:16 left, it all started to slip away.
Nebraska (4-6, 2-4) needed just 2:23 to move down the field and cut the deficit to 38-33 after a 1-yard touchdown run by quarterback Tommy Armstrong Jr. And after Michigan State's Demetrious Cox recovered an onside kick, Michigan State failed to pick up a first down.
A holding penalty on a third-down run cost them 15 seconds, and after Jake Hartbarger's punt was downed at the 9, the Cornhuskers had 55 seconds to go 91 yards with no timeouts. It took just two passing plays to reach the Michigan State 30 when Arjen Colquhoun had a chance to end the game with an interception in the end zone. But the ball popped out of his hands.
On the next play, Armstrong hit Brandon Reilly with a 30-yard touchdown pass to put the Huskers up 39-38. The officials noted Reilly went out of bounds before catching the ball, but after a conference said he was forced out by MSU's Jermaine Edmondson.
Spartans coach Mark Dantonio didn't want to talk about the call on Nebraska's winning TD.
Replays seemed to show otherwise, but the call was upheld.
"I got an explanation," Michigan State coach Mark Dantonio said. "Everybody saw the replay but that's not my job. My job is to coach and I'm going to do the very best that I can. That's somebody else's job."
Reilly said he was nervous when the play was being reviewed.
"Yeah, very," he said. "I think my heart just stopped. We needed this one more than anything. Words can't describe how I'm feeling right now. I'm just so excited it worked out the way it did."
Nebraska coach Mike Riley sure thought the play wasn't going to stand, to the extent he had the offense planning its next play.
"We really thought initially it was going to be ruled out of bounds," Riley said. "So, we were getting ready for another play from about the 30-yard line, is what we were actually preparing for and then we were actually surprised when they signaled touchdown."
Dantonio clearly saw in the same way, but he wasn't blaming that for Michigan State's loss
"Well, we didn't get Tommy Armstrong to the ground, that's the bottom line," Dantonio said. "We've got to tackle the quarterback one time. They've got no timeouts left, so we need to keep the clock rolling and we max-pressured him. He stepped up and got rid of the ball."
The players felt the same way.
Loss hurts no matter how it happens, MSU coach Mark Dantonio says.
"We've got to make plays out there," senior linebacker Darien Harris said. "It's always about us and at the end of the day they put together an excellent drive. We've just got to make plays out there.
"I don't think the officiating cost us the game at all. We have to go out and execute in all three facets of the game for 60 minutes."
Coming off a bye week, it took Michigan State a while to get moving as Nebraska opened a 10-0 lead, but by halftime the Spartans had pulled ahead, 17-13. Cook had a pair of touchdown passes to Macgarrett Kings Jr. and Michael Geiger added a 46-yard field goal.
Nebraska went up 20-17 on a 1-yard touchdown run by Imani Cross with 12:31 to play in the third quarter, but Michigan State went up 24-20 on a 33-yard touchdown pass from Cook to Aaron Burbridge. And after linebacker Riley Bullough intercepted an Armstrong pass near the goal line, Michigan State extended the lead to 31-20 when Cook hit tight end Jamal Lyles for a 16-yard touchdown pass, the first of Lyles' career.
Armstrong scored on a 2-yard run to cut the MSU lead to 31-26, but Michigan State answered with a drive that appeared to put the game away, taking 8:50 off the clock and scoring on a 1-yard touchdown run from Holmes to go ahead.
But that's when Nebraska started rallying.
"Going into the fourth quarter we felt confident," Bullough said. "We were making plays on both sides of the ball. Nebraska just kept fighting back. They fought to the end so give them credit."
The loss spoiled an impressive night from the Michigan State offense. Burbridge had 10 catches for 164 yards and a touchdown while Kings had four grabs for 97 yards and two touchdowns. Holmes ran for a career-high 117 yards in addition to his touchdown.
But Armstrong threw for 320 yards and two touchdowns while running for two more, and in the end, he was too much for the Spartans to contain.
"Everybody is going to take responsibility for this," Dantonio said. "I can tell you that our offense will take responsibility, the coaches will take responsibility, the defense will take responsibility. Every individual player will, so there's plenty to go around."