Niyo: Moment of caution burns MSU, Dantonio

John Niyo
The Detroit News
Michigan State head coach Mark Dantonio

Lincoln, Neb.  — Michigan State’s Year of Living Dangerously continued.

But a night of playing aggressively didn’t.

And after the latest in a confounding string of officiating gaffes that’s plaguing college football, there were two ways to look at one playoff-crushing loss for the Spartans.

Either way, though, they blew it.

“We had the game in our hands,” quarterback Connor Cook said after the Spartans’ stunning, 39-38 loss at Nebraska on Saturday night. “And to see it just ripped away in that short amount of time, it kind of hurts.”

That’s putting it mildly, of course. The thousand-yard stares in the aftermath of this loss did a better job of explaining the anguish, as an unbeaten season — and probably Michigan State’s playoff hopes — evaporated in a flurry of mistakes.

And while it’s the last of those that had everyone up in arms — the officials’ ruling that allowed Nebraska’s 30-yard touchdown reception with 17 seconds left — it was a different kind of judgment call that might’ve ultimately doomed Michigan State.

“It’s disappointing the way it went down at the end, of course,” Dantonio said, noting all the blown coverages and missed opportunities from his defense, including a would-be interception that Arjen Colquhoun couldn’t corral on the play before Nebraska’s winning touchdown.

Yes, there was “the controversial play at the end,” he added, “but they never should’ve been down there in the first place.”

He’s right about that. But for all the wrong reasons — and I’ll get to that in a minute.

Phantom push

“I got an explanation,” Dantonio said, keeping his composure when questioned after the game about that season-altering call. “They said that the receiver was pushed out of bounds. … Everybody saw the replay.”

And everybody, I presume, saw that it was a bad call, including the replay official, Tom Kissinger. But the fact that there was some contact between MSU cornerback Jermaine Edmondson and Nebraska’s Brandon Reilly meant that part of the call — the ruling that Edmondson had forced Reilly out of bounds, which he clearly didn’t — wasn’t reviewable.

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We’ll wait to see what the Big Ten office has to say about it this week, but an apology won’t change the result, or the Spartans’ now-blemished record. And the fact they’re not alone probably won’t offer much solace, either.

Last week, it was multiple missed calls that allowed Miami to beat Duke on a wacky, game-ending kickoff return. This week, it’s a phantom shove that pushed the Spartans out of the ranks of the unbeaten.

And yes, it’s worth noting that Saturday’s crew in Lincoln, led by referee John O’Neill, was the same one that struggled in Ann Arbor a few weeks ago in that Michigan-Michigan State game. O’Neill’s crew sparked controversy last fall as well, blaming their bumbling on technical difficulties in Ohio State’s double-OT win at Penn State.

But, as Dantonio said late Saturday night, “Some things you can control, some things you can’t.”

Yet this was a game neither team truly controlled, because neither defense seemed capable of stopping its opponent. Michigan State and Nebraska combined for nearly 1,000 yards of offense, and they were a combined 8-for-9 in third-down conversions in the second half — right up until it really mattered. In fact, the Spartans converted eight of nine third downs after the first quarter, with the lone failure followed by Cook’s fourth-and-1 keeper on a 16-play, 85-yard touchdown drive that put Michigan State up 38-26 with 4:16 left.

Trusting the D, not the QB

All the more reason, then, to question the third-down call that set the stage for Nebraska’s wild finish before a sellout crowd of 90,049 at Memorial Stadium.

Nebraska had pulled within 38-33 on the ensuing possession. But after Michigan State recovered an onside kick, the Spartans took over at Nebraska’s 44-yard line with 1:46 left. The Cornhuskers still had two timeouts left, so Michigan State needed a first down to ice the game to avoid entrusting things to a defense that hadn’t forced a punt since the first quarter.

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But after consecutive 1-yard runs by Gerald Holmes, the call on third-and-8 wasn’t to put the game in the hands of Michigan State’s senior quarterback, the potential NFL first-round draft pick who’d made big plays all night, throwing for 335 yards and four touchdowns.

No, it was an end around to tight end Jamal Lyles — “We didn’t think they would be expecting that,” Dantonio explained — that went for no gain and, thanks to a holding penalty, also stopped the clock temporarily. That meant the Spartans could only run the clock down to 1:03 before punting.

And that meant Dantonio was trusting his defense, a unit that started the game with three true freshmen in the secondary and ended it without a single sack of Tommy Armstrong Jr.

“We’ve just got to make a play,” he said.

But why not say that sooner? Why not say that when the offense is on the field, when the strength of this team has the ball and a chance to do what they’ve proven capable of doing so many times this season?

Dantonio talked about “the risk” of an incompletion stopping the clock. But why not gamble on the Big Ten’s best passing offense instead?

That’s a question I asked Cook after the game, after he’d already deferred once to the coaches’ decision in his postgame comments.

“You can’t ask me that,” he said. “I mean, we’ve got the guys to run the football. We’ve got big guys up front. We’ve got talented running backs. I think in that time, getting 40 seconds off the clock is more important than gambling and rolling the dice and trying and throwing on third down, possibly risking an incompletion. … I think at that point in the game, time is more crucial.”

But I think if he were being honest, instead of diplomatic, he’d say otherwise. He’d say it wasn’t simply the officials that ripped the game out of Michigan State’s hands. Or the Cornhuskers, who’ve been snake-bitten all season.

His coaches took this game away from him as well. And that’s a call they’ll all have to live with, too.