Defense keeps Spartans in game as offense struggles in second half

Matt Charboneau
The Detroit News

East Lansing — Xavier Henderson insists he felt as fresh as possible when he trotted onto the field for overtime.

That’s saying something considering how much time Henderson and the Michigan State defense spent on the field in the second half Saturday night at Spartan Stadium against Nebraska.

Michigan State safety Darius Snow (23), defensive end Jeff Pietrowski (47), linebacker Cal Haladay (27) and  linebacker Quavaris Crouch (6) celebrate after 47 recovers a fumble in the fourth quarter.

For more than 23 minutes of the third and fourth quarters, it was the Spartans defense desperately hanging on, trying to keep the team in the game as the offense was in the midst of a remarkable run of ineptitude. Michigan State managed just 14 yards, only 1 in the fourth quarter, and never gained a first down. It wasn’t until overtime when Kenneth Walker III rattled off a 23-yard run that there was any life.

By then, however, the defense had done its job, forcing two punts late in the fourth quarter, then intercepting Nebraska quarterback Adrian Martinez in overtime to lead to a 23-20 victory.

“We never really felt like we didn't have a chance,” Henderson said. “There wasn't really any doubt. Coach (Mel) Tucker always talks about not flinching. Yeah, we were out there for a long time but that's the way the game goes sometimes. It's our job to stop them. We were the ones letting them get first downs and letting them keep possession. But it just comes with staying at it. Keep chopping, and we never really felt like we were going to lose.”

Martinez was doing his best to prove Henderson wrong. After getting knocked out by Henderson for a series to start the game, Martinez was causing the Spartans fits all night. He got loose for 65 rushing yards and two touchdowns while throwing for 251 yards.

However, he was sacked seven times and his pass that was intercepted by Chester Kimbrough in overtime was the final critical error for the Cornhuskers.

Along the way, Henderson had a career-high 17 tackles as seven players were credited with a sack and there were two forced turnovers that led to the winning field goal from Matt Coghlin.

“It was great,” Henderson said. “We definitely felt like this was a big-time game because Nebraska was a good football team. We watched on film they were stout on defense and as you can see they can make some big plays on offense. So I knew if we got this one we would put ourselves in a pretty good spot but still with a lot of work to do. But it was great seeing that kick. I have a lot of confidence in Coghs. I mean, this is like his 10th year here, so I'm confident in him.”

Players remembered

Before the game, the teams honored the memory of former Michigan State players Mike Sadler and Mylan Hicks, as well as former Nebraska punter Sam Foltz.

Sadler and Sam Foltz were killed in a car accident on July 23, 2016, while working a kicking camp near Waukesha, Wisconsin. The game Saturday was the first time Nebraska has played in East Lansing since the accident.

Sadler was the first student-athlete at Michigan State to earn Academic All-America honors four times. A two-time first-team All-Big Ten selection, Sadler earned first-team All-America accolades during MSU’s Big Ten and Rose Bowl Championship season in 2013. Foltz was named the 2015 Big Ten Punter of the Year for the Huskers.

Hicks, a defensive back from Detroit who played from 2012-14, was killed in a shooting on Sept. 25, 2016, in Calgary, Alberta, where he was playing in the Canadian Football League. Hicks was a member of the 2013 team and earned his bachelor’s degree in psychology in August 2014 and was named the defensive recipient of MSU’s Biggie Munn Award (most inspirational player) as a senior.

Extra points

Michigan State freshman defensive end Alex Okelo has entered the transfer portal.

The former three-star prospect from Nashville has not appeared in a game this season.

Okelo (6-5, 215) did not participate in Michigan State’s open practice on Aug. 23 at Spartan Stadium and has not dressed for any of the first three games this season.

After 27 players from last year’s roster left through the portal, Okelo is the first Spartan to enter the portal this season.

… Sixth-year senior defensive end Drew Beesley injured his right foot in the first half and did not return. He watched the second half with his foot in a boot and after the game Tucker said he would know more on Sunday about Beesley’s status.

… Jayden Reed’s 62-yard punt return for a touchdown was Michigan State’s first since Keyshawn Martin returned a punt 57 yards for a touchdown against Northwestern on Nov. 26, 2011.

… Running back Elijah Collins, linebacker Itayvion Brown and defensive end Jack Camper were not available. Collins missed his second straight game and Brown his third.

Twitter: @mattcharboneau