'Transformative moment': Michigan State turns sudden momentum shift into dramatic victory
East Lansing — Mel Tucker snapped his fingers.
That’s how quickly momentum can change, the Michigan State coach explained, and that’s how quickly it changed on Saturday night for the 20th-ranked Spartans as they hosted Nebraska.
On a night the offense was stuck in the mud, it was special teams and defense that bailed out Michigan State, abruptly shifting a game that felt for most of the second half like it would be a loss into a 23-20 victory in overtime in front of 70,332 relieved fans at Spartan Stadium.
“We talked about the pendulum swinging back and forth,” Tucker said. “The pendulum of momentum in games, and this game was no different. There are always momentum swings. … and you can get it back just like that, and that’s what we were able to do at the end.
“We found a way to get it done. I’m proud of this football team and I’m happy that we won the game. … These types of wins, these are gut-checks. This can be a transformative moment. So, we’ll see what’s next for us.”
Before seeing what’s next, Michigan State (4-0, 2-0 Big Ten) will have to process what took place Saturday night, its first overtime victory since it beat Wisconsin on the road in 2012.
With just less than four minutes to play and Nebraska leading, 20-13, the Cornhuskers lined up to punt. That’s when Jalen Nailor lured the Nebraska coverage unit to one side of the field as the ball flew to the other and into the hands of Jayden Reed. He caught the ball on the run and sprinted 62 yards for the touchdown to tie the score at 20 with 3:47 to play.
After each team squandered late chances, Chester Kimbrough intercepted an Adrian Martinez pass on the first overtime possession and nearly returned it for a touchdown. No matter, after a Kenneth Walker III 23-yard run — Michigan State’s only first down after halftime — Matt Coghlin kicked a 21-yard field goal for the win.
“We’ve been working on that for about a few weeks now,” said Reed, who declared he knew as soon as the ball was kicked that he had a chance to go the distance. “We got a little decoy from Jalen Nailor and I took it the whole way. Credit to (special teams coach Ross) Els and the special teams unit for opening that play up for me.”
Of course, that was just the play to get the Spartans to overtime.
It was Kimbrough’s interception, the first of the Florida transfer’s career at MSU, that swung the momentum permanently.
“I was just playing my coverage, trusting my coverage, trusting my technique,” Kimbrough said. “I’m just proud of my team.”
It was a tough haul getting to that point, to be sure.
Michigan State led 13-10 at halftime thanks to a flea-flicker pass from Payton Thorne to Reed and two Coghlin field goals. But the running game was having trouble finding room and Nebraska was starting to find its offensive rhythm.
Nebraska opened the second half with an impressive 14-play drive, but like many on the night, this one stalled around the 10 and the Cornhuskers settled for a 28-yard field goal from Connor Culp to tie the score, 13-13, with 9:10 to play in the third quarter.
That’s when the three-and-out parade began for Michigan State and Martinez and the Cornhuskers took advantage. In the third quarter alone, the Spartans were outgained 122 yards to 13. By early in the fourth quarter the Spartans appeared to have a golden opportunity when Jacub Panasuik sacked Martinez and forced a fumble that was recovered by Jeff Pietrowski. But MSU was forced to punt with 12:34 left in the fourth quarter and Nebraska didn’t let the opportunity slip away, marching 80 yards on 11 plays, converting a fourth down along the way, to take a 20-13 lead with 7:29 to play on a 3-yard run from Martinez when there was no defender within 10 yards as he strolled into the end zone.
The offense continued to struggle for Michigan State, going three-and-out again before Reed came through with the punt return.
By the end of regulation, Michigan State had only 14 total yards, including just 1 yard in the fourth quarter.
“You can feel the frustration building throughout the game,” Thorne said. “I’m just extremely happy this is a team game, the best team game in the world. Our defense played great. A lot of guys played great, and the reason that we were struggling a little bit was I wasn't playing well enough. I wasn't making the right calls, and if you look at our offense, it starts with the guy who's in charge and that was me and I wasn't playing well enough tonight.
“But it’s a team game, a team win and the defense played outstanding and put us in a position to win. I'm thankful for that.”
Michigan State did just that, getting two huge plays to close out the final minutes while Nebraska (2-3, 0-2) heads home deflated.
“I feel terrible for them because the defense is playing really well right now,” Nebraska coach Scott Frost said, “and we didn't have any business losing the game.”
Thorne finished 14-for-23 for 183 yards, one touchdown and his first interception of the year. Trey Mosley had six receptions for 70 yards and Walker ran for 61 yards on 19 carries as Michigan State was limited to 254 total yards.
Martinez threw for 251 yards and ran 20 times for 65 yards and two touchdowns. But he was sacked seven times with Panasiuk getting credit for two.
“Obviously, it’s an unreal feeling,” Reed said. “It was just great to see Spartan Nation sticking with us through the entire game. We played complementary football — special teams, offense and defense, all together. That’s what made it happen, so it was an unreal feeling.”