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November 16, 2013
Final take: A punch to the gut
As you watched Nebraska head coach Bo Pelini on the sidelines in the first quarter on Saturday it was like somebody punched him in the gut.
The Husker lost two lost fumbles and threw one interception in the first quarter against Michigan State, but still somehow only found themselves down 10-7.
Everything Nebraska was doing on both offense and defense was working, but at the end of the day the Huskers couldn't get out of their own way. Never once did this Michigan State defense look like the stifling brick wall people were expecting.
NU continued to have success on offense, as running back Ameer Abdullah ran for 123 yards and Nebraska finished with 182 yards on 32 carries. However, when you turn it over five times, including three inside your own 22 yard line you are going to have a hard time beating a Division II team.
"We just made too many mistakes to overcome," Pelini said. "It's hard to be minus-five in the turnover category and win a football game against a quality football team. We almost found a way. We had some opportunities. But that's a tall order. I liked our plan, I really did."
The frustrating thing for Nebraska is it felt like they were one play away from turning the game around completely. NU had five opportunities to take the lead in the second half trailing 27-21, but never could get that game changing play or moment they needed.
"We turned the ball over, but they weren't forced turnovers," junior Nebraska wide receiver Kenny Bell said. "Hats off to them. They played great. They played a good game. But we went for 350 yards with five turnovers. When we wanted to, we moved the ball. But hats off to them, they won the football game."
Nebraska's defense held as long as they could, but the three turnovers inside the 22 yard line were too much to overcome.
Michigan State was able to turn those mistakes into 17 points, and none was more costly than quarterback Tommy Armstrong's fumble on the 22 yard line with 1 minute remaining before halftime. All Armstrong had to do was fall down and the clock would have basically expired after a fourth down punt. Instead the fumble led to another MSU touchdown to make the game 20-7 at halftime instead of 13-7.
On the day Armstrong was credited with three of Nebraska's five turnovers, while another came on an option pitch to freshman running back Terrell Newby.
"I think we held our own out there," Defensive end Randy Gregory said. "(Michigan State) had a few drives and a few good plays down the field on us. I know we kind of got tired. I know I got tired. I know there were a lot of guys who were banged up. We can't make excuses. I think we played pretty well. We just made a lot of mistakes here and there and it cost us."
So where does Nebraska go from here? For the first time since 2011 the Huskers will play two November football games that have zero implications on going to the Big Ten title game.
The frustrating thing about Saturday was never once did you feel Michigan State out-classed Nebraska, even up front where the Huskers were battling multiple injuries on the offensive line.
"We just have to go back to work tomorrow," Gregory said. "We still have two games left. We have to finish up the season strong even though we are out of the race. That doesn't mean the season is over. We still have two more games and the bowl game left to finish up strong and that's what we intend on doing."
On to the post game grade out
What I saw on Saturday
***Michigan State quarterback Connor Cook earned a lot of respect with his play on Saturday. Cook connected on eight third down passes, including strikes from 19, 13 and 27 yards to keep Spartan drives alive. He was more than just a game manager. He stood tall in the pocket and threw dart after dart.
***After going for 123 yards on 22 carries against the nation's No. 1 ranked rushing defense, I think it's clear Nebraska running back Ameer Abdullah has to be on the short list for Big Ten offensive player of the year and All-American honors.
***People are not going to want to hear this, but some of the mistakes we saw Armstrong make today probably don't get made by a veteran like Taylor Martinez.
***I was told after the game Michigan State's players were very surprised Nebraska went away from the option and ran more straight power at them. MSU was not expecting that. Beck had some great concepts and ideas going into this game, it's a shame they'll be overshadowed by the five turnovers.
***Nebraska's special teams continue to be a huge liability. It's hard to even know where to start.
***Gregory gave Nebraska a lot on Saturday, but like a lot of NU's defenders he was tired in the second half. Michigan State held the ball for 38:37 and ran 80 plays at the Huskers. That's a lot of pounding right there.
***One big bright spot for Nebraska on Saturday was the play of walk-on wide receiver Sam Burtch, who had five catches for 86 yards and a touchdown. Michigan State didn't give him much respect, and he made them pay on a handful of occasions.
***I was very surprised senior offensive lineman Jeremiah Sirles played on Saturday. We were led to believe there was no way he'd be out there. That's a senior laying it on the line.
The final grades
Rushing offense: C-
It's hard to be critical of the way Abdullah and Imani Cross ran the ball on Saturday, but you can't look past the three lost fumbles in the ground game, particularly the two from Armstrong that were both inside the 22 yard line and the botched option pitch by Newby.
Passing offense: D
Armstrong finished just 9-of-21 for 143 yards. He took a lot of shots down field and had opportunities to hit his receivers for big plays but came up empty. His first quarter interception was also an inexcusable mistake.
Rushing defense: B
Michigan State had just 168 yards on 48 carries for a 3.5 yard per carry average. It's hard to be critical of the rushing defense. They held about as long as they could, but the offense continued to put the defense in tough situations.
Passing defense: C
Cook was only 15-of-31, but he connected on eight third down passes that kept so many of Michigan State's scoring drives alive. I felt like when Nebraska didn't get pressure on Cook he found ways to make big throw after big throw.
Special teams: F
Nebraska had another botched punt by Jordan Westerkamp that directly led to points. Michigan State dominated special teams on Saturday. NU's two punt returns resulted in a loss of four yards, while the Spartans lone return went for 26 yards. The Huskers also gave up a fake field goal on special teams when Pelini said they knew it was coming. That was the play that sealed the deal for the Spartans.
Sean Callahan can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and he can be heard each day at 6:50 am and 4:50 pm on Big Red Radio 1110 KFAB in Omaha during the football season. He can also be seen on KETV Channel 7 TV in Omaha during the fall and each week he appears on NET's Big Red Wrap Tuesday's at 7 pm.