Nebraska's Armstrong shreds MSU secondary

Matt Charboneau
The Detroit News

Lincoln, Neb.— The secondary has been a concern all season for Michigan State, and in Saturday’s 39-38 loss at Nebraska, it was once again the defensive backfield that was at the center of many of the Spartans’ breakdowns.

Nebraska ran the ball effectively, but it was the big plays through the air that hurt the Spartans most, especially in the second half and in the final minutes when the Huskers erased a 12-point deficit and pulled off the stunning comeback.

It was a combination of the struggles of the players in the back end and inability to contain Nebraska quarterback Tommy Armstrong Jr., who accounted for four touchdowns and wasn’t sacked the entire game.

“The bottom line is when you don't sack the quarterback and he keeps plays alive and he makes a couple plays with his feet,” Michigan State coach Mark Dantonio said. “Bad things start to happen when you don't play the deep part of the middle of the field. That basically sums it up defensively. Could we have played a little better defensively on the run? Probably, but they didn't beat us running the football, they beat us with the deep ball.”

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That was no more evident than the second half.

It began on the first drive when freshman cornerback Tyson Smith was beat for a 43-yard pass from Armstrong to Alonzo Moore to the MSU 1. The Huskers scored on the next play to take a 20-17 lead.

Even after the Spartans went ahead 38-26 with 4:16 to play, Armstrong kept picking apart the Michigan State secondary. After MSU’s final touchdown, Armstrong connected on passes of 22, 14 and 13 yards to take the ball to the MSU 2.

It led to a touchdown and shrunk Michigan State's lead.

When the Spartans failed to pick up a first down on their next drive and pinned the Cornhuskers at their 9 with 55 seconds to play, it mattered little. Armstrong hit Jordan Westerkamp for two plays that totaled 61 yards — a 28-yarder and a completion for 33 yards — to move to the Michigan State 30.

The Michigan State secondary actually had a chance to put the game away on the next play when cornerback Arjen Colquhoun nearly intercepted a ball in the end zone but couldn’t hang on.

On the next play, Armstrong hit Brandon Reilly for the game-winning score.

“We had a huge opportunity at the end of the game to come down with an interception,” Dantonio said “Then the controversial play at the end, but they should have never been down there in the first place.”

Michigan State has lost two starting defensive backs to injury and was without Darian Hicks (concussion), who dressed but did not play. Eight different defensive backs played — including three true freshmen – and five different cornerbacks saw action. Wide receiver Monty Madaris even got a few snaps at cornerback.

But the Spartans weren’t pointing fingers afterward.

“We’ve got to push forward and remain positive,” quarterback Connor Cook said. “We can’t blame anyone or get down because that is the worst thing you can do as a team.”