MSU's offense stalls in loss to Nebraska

Matt Charboneau
The Detroit News

Lincoln, Neb. — Call it déjà vu. Call it a broken record.

Whatever cliché works when trying to describe Michigan State’s offense at this point, the only thing that’s certain is it’s not getting any better.

And for a Michigan State team that was thinking Rose Bowl a few weeks ago it means another game without a touchdown and a postgame spent with head-scratching and attempting to make sense of what just happened.

On Saturday, it was the same old story as Michigan State didn’t find the end zone for the second straight game and wasted another outstanding defensive effort in a 9-6 loss to Nebraska in front of 88,793 at Memorial Stadium.

BOX SCORE: Nebraska 9, Michigan State 6

“I would think if there is a level of frustration it would come from the head coach, too,” Michigan State coach Mark Dantonio said. “So yeah, I’m frustrated about points. But the play-calling was fine. We gotta execute. There is an execution factor that’s involved here. Now, some of it’s weather, some of it’s them playing, making plays on the ball. Some of it is us. You have to look at it and say, ‘What is the underlying factor here?’

“But you’ve got to score points. We’re all-inclusive in that, which means it’s a football team. We’re not keeping score for the offense and defense out there, it’s a football team. We’re gonna win together or we’re gonna lose together.”

There’s been far more losing this season than the Spartans expected. And as much as they’re doing their best to present a united front, it’s been almost solely on the offense.

Against a Nebraska defense that entered the game 13th in the Big Ten in total defense, Michigan State (6-5, 4-4) gained 289 total yards, was 9-for-20 on third down and didn’t get a single touchdown on three red-zone trips.

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Rocky Lombardi, starting for the injured Brian Lewerke, was 15-for-41 for 146 yards while Connor Heyward ran 21 times for 80 yards and had five receptions for 78 yards.  Add in a handful of dropped passes — at least one in the end zone from tight end Matt Dotson — and it made the Cornhuskers look like a championship-level defense.

“It is very frustrating because we are driving the ball,” Heyward said. “I think we executed well in this game except for when we were in the red zone. You have to be able to put points on the board. … I think we worked hard all week and prepared well. We had our chances, so we just have to make the most of our opportunities.”

Michigan State hasn’t made the most of plenty of those opportunities this season. That was clear on each of the red-zone trips.

The first drive of the game was going well until MSU reached the Nebraska 16. But Lombardi overthrew Dotson on first down in the corner of the end zone leading to Matt Coghlin’s first field goal.

Early in the second quarter, the defense gave the offense the ball at the Nebraska 21. But after Lombardi and Dotson failed to connect in the end zone again, Dotson was flagged for a personal foul — one of five called on the Spartans — and Coghlin’s 41-yard field-goal attempt hit the upright.

In the fourth quarter, it was the Lombardi-Dotson connection again that couldn’t execute as Dotson dropped a pass in the back of the end zone forcing another Coghlin field goal.

More:MSU's Lombardi refuses to point finger over dropped passes

“At the end of the day, you’ve got to get it done for a win,” Dantonio said. “There’s such a difference if you win the game, 9-6, as opposed to losing the game, 9-6. There’s a complete flip. It’s like another dimension between winning and losing and we’ve got to win.”

Nebraska (4-7, 3-5) had been flying high offensively entering the game, but Michigan State limited the Cornhuskers to 248 yards and held quarterback Adrian Martinez to 145 passing and 18 rushing.

However, the Huskers hung around and got three fourth-quarter field goals from Barret Pickering kicked of 36, 20 and 47 yards, the last coming with just more than five minutes to play.

“I think there is a little more fight,” Nebraska coach Scott Frost said. “Today was certainly the most I’ve seen. I haven’t seen these guys quit. I’ve seen them keep practicing better and better. I’ve seen them keep playing harder. I’ve seen them come together better as a team. That’s a hard game to win. It would’ve been even harder to lose. Our guys had to stick with it. Offensively, we had to keep grinding and the defense had to keep coming up with stops. They found a way to get it done.”

The Spartans had two chances to tie or take the lead, but each of their final two drives came up short. They were forced to punt with a little more than four minutes to play but got the ball back with 3:52 left.

But even after a pass interference call on Nebraska kept the drive going, Michigan State failed to convert on fourth-and-4 from the Nebraska 29.

More:Spartans stout defense declines to cast wary eye at anemic offense

More:Dantonio blames lack of composure for spate of personal fouls

“On fourth-and-4 you’ve got to convert,” Heyward said. “It doesn’t matter what is called. You’ve got to catch the ball. We’ve got to convert in those hard times because we definitely (would have been) in field goal range.”

Instead, it became another frustrating loss in season full of them.

“I keep saying to our players, because what else do you say sometimes?” Dantonio said. “The difference between winning and losing is so small, you really can cut it with a knife sometimes. It’s so small. It’s also the difference between joy and frustration. There’s enough of that to go around.

“But I tell our players, ‘You gotta keep pushing. Sometimes life will hit ya, and we’ve had a lot of games where we won close games.’ We’re going through a spell here, but we’ll rise up.”

Twitter: @mattcharboneau