EAST LANSING - They wouldn't coach Johnny Adams to do anything differently.
That's how coaches viewed things when watching film of Adams' block, according to Adams and his teammates.
Adams was flagged for a personal foul for his block on Nebraska wide receiver Kenny Bell during Darquez Dennard's interception return for a touchdown. The penalty caused the touchdown, which would have given Michigan State a 31-14 lead with less than 11 minutes to play, to be taken off the board, and cost the Spartans 90 yards in field position.
Adams and Dennard spoke publicly about the play for the first time following practice, Tuesday night.
"It was a legal hit," Adams said calmly in post-practice interviews. "My coaches talked to me and told me it was a legal hit and that's what I went from."
Did the coaches think it was a clean football play?
"Yeah, they just said it was a good hit," Adams said.
Coaches and teammates saw it that way in the defensive backs film room, too.
"I thought it was a clean block," Dennard said. "Put me in Johnny's shoes, I probably would have done the same thing. I can't fault him for it. I thought it was a good block."
Dennard and head coach Mark Dantonio pointed out that Bell ran down and tackled Dennard after his first interception, earlier in the game.
"The previous interception I, he ran me down and tackled me, and Johnny was trying to do a smart play and with all the weaving I did he could have caught up to me again," Dennard said.
Dantonio was careful with his words about the controversy during his weekly press conference on Tuesday. He fell short of criticizing officials. But word from the MSU positional meeting rooms is that Adams and other defensive backs weren't directed to do things any differently if the same situation were to arise in the future.
"It's unclear," Dantonio said, when asked what a player like Adams should do in a similar situation. "It's unclear. I guess you have to make a decision. Do you think he's in the play or not in play? You can make a case of 80 (Bell) runs down, first interception. It's a touchdown on the first one (if not for Bell).
"You can make a case to Johnny that he's the first guy in the end zone (joining Dennard). So he (Bell) could have possibly run him down because he (Adams) cut back three times. Had to stall his feet and accelerate. So you could make a case for that.
"I think the basic idea is if he (Bell) is not involved in the play, you're not supposed to hit him, but the game is football," Dantonio said. "So it's difficult to assess those things especially when you're making split second decisions out on the field very rapidly. I don't know the answer to that question. Again, I'm just trying to be political up here today.
"As I've said before, I can't get involved in that other than ask from a critique standpoint and satisfy my own initial frustration. I can do that. But I can't go beyond that and say‑‑ because it's not going to change anything."
Dantonio acknowledged that he has been in communication with the Big Ten office about the controversial calls.
"Yeah, I've talked to the Big Ten Conference," he said. "Obviously, those conversations have to remain confidential."
As It Happened
In the seconds following Dennard's temporarily-euphoric interception return, Adams was aware of a hold-up behind the play, but didn't believe it was about him.
"I thought it was a legal hit," Adams said. "I got in front of him. I hit him in the shoulder pads so I went and celebrated with my teammates.
"I saw a couple of my teammates down, Taiwan Jones was down," Adams said of the delayed proceedings after the play. "I thought it was something going on. And then they called it on me. I was very surprised. I didn't see it until I got done celebrating so it was a little disappointing.
"My teammate just made a great play, so I'm sorry for him. To take it back from him ..."
Adams said he never received an explanation from the officials, nor did he ask for one.
And after watching it on film?
"My feeling was it was (still) a legal hit," he said. "We were out there on the football field and everybody should be aware, and I got called for it.
"It's going to haunt me cause I took a great play back from my teammates. He went for 90 some odd yards for a touchdown to probably help seal the game. Heartbreaking. Terrible."
Dennard was more bothered by a pass interference call on him in the end zone on a third down play, which gave Nebraska a fresh set of downs and a chance to win in regulation rather than kick a field goal and force overtime.
"That (the pass interference call) would have stopped them and possibly we could have blocked a field goal or take it to overtime," Dennard said.
That call hurt more than the called-back pick six?
"Yeah," he said. "A win would have felt better. That was my personal goal."
Could he have done anything differently on the pass interference?
"Maybe I should have gambled a little bit instead of just playing safe. Maybe I should have tried to intercept it, stay up. I don't know."
Adams' thoughts on the pass interference call?
"Ugh, uhhh," Adams said. "It was good defense. That's how we're coached and we played it like we were coached."
Dennard and Adams indicated they won't do anything different in the future, but they aren't crying foul about this result.
"We can't put it on officials," Adams said. "We go out there and there are a lot of plays during a game so we have to take this one, swallow it and move on."
Tuesday marked Michigan State's first day back in pads. With two games remaining on the regular season schedule, and the Spartans needing one win to become bowl eligible, and another to improve their bowl attractiveness, Dennard and Adams were upbeat.
"We are just looking at the two games on our schedule that are guaranteed," Adams said. "We can only control what we can control, and we have two games left that we can control."
The Spartans have earned a bowl bid in five straight seasons, already the longest in school history.
"It's a great streak if we can continue it," Adams said. "We are just playing it, come out here and compete."
Northwestern (7-2 overall and 3-2 in the Big Ten) will visit Spartan Stadium on Nov. 17. The Wildcats, coming off a bye week, are fully capable of winning at Michigan this weekend and coming to East Lansing a game behind the Huskers or possibly in a tie with Nebraska for the Legend Division lead if Nebraska falters against Penn State this Saturday in Lincoln, Neb.
Northwestern lost a double-digit lead in dropping a 29-28 decision to Nebraska in Evanston, Ill., on Oct. 20.
The Spartans will need to play one of their best games of the season a week from Saturday in order to avoid having a 2-5 record at home this year.
"Northwestern is going to try to tempo us, so to get a week off before we get to that fast-tempo offense is going to help," Adams said.
'Relax My Mind'
Adams has been slowed and temporarily sidelined by undisclosed injuries in recent weeks. He, and other teamamtes, have needed the bye week for quite some time. Michigan State and Ohio State are the only Big Ten teams yet to have a bye week. OSU managed to squeak by Indiana and Purdue (overtime) in close game in October, but the Spartans weren't as clutch in games against Iowa, Michigan and Nebraska.
What is Adams going to do during the bye week?
"Relax my mind and my body and get back in the film room and tighten up some things that we need to work on as a defense and me as an individual," he said.
'I'm Looking Forward'
MSU's players might have seemed bottomed out and floored in the moments following the loss to Nebraska. But if the unaffected optimism of Adams and Dennard on Tuesday night is any reflection of the rest of the team, then the Spartans might still have some steam left in their engine.
"You guys probably see it different, but I feel like we get stronger every week," Adams said. "It's football. That's a good team over there in Nebraska, a good offensive team, No. 1 in the Big Ten. We don't like to give up big plays, but it's football.
"We are still pushing, we still have two games left, seniors have two games left so we are still playing and playing hard."
Dennard said the building process continues.
"We are going to finish these two games strong, and end up going to a Jan. 1 bowl, and win that and then prepare and look for next season and move on," Dennard said. "I'm looking forward."