Nebraska Huskers Football: 10 things we learned from NU's loss to Michigan State
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10 things we learned from Nebraska's loss to Michigan State

EAST LANSING, Mich. - Here are 10 of our biggest takeaways from Nebraska’s 23-20 overtime loss to No. 20 Michigan State on Saturday night…

Adrian Martinez wasn't perfect, but he was once again Nebraska's only chance on offense.
Adrian Martinez wasn't perfect, but he was once again Nebraska's only chance on offense. (Associated Press)

1. Frost is all out of answers

Scott Frost has had to try and explain a lot of frustrating and disappointing losses during his tenure at Nebraska.

Sitting at the visiting team postgame press conference podium at Spartan Stadium, Frost seemed all out of answers for how the Huskers could fix the problems that have plagued them for four seasons now.

Penalties, turnovers, special teams blunders, missed reads, and overall poor execution all added up to spoil one of NU’s best defensive performances in years.

It was the same script that Nebraska has seen play out seemingly every week, and Frost put the onus on his players to figure out how to break the cycle.

“I felt like I was watching the same movie again, and I told them, ‘we’ve got to change the record,’” Frost said. “This team needs to change the record. I can’t go out there and stay set for them. I can keep trying to fix it, (but) these guys have got to do it, and we’ve got a good enough team to do it.

“But they’ve got to get sick of this stuff. I’m sick of it. They’re sick of it. We’ve got to be able to count on guys when we need them to do their job… We didn’t have any business losing that game.”

2. Martinez is flawed, but he’s NU’s only hope

There were many plays that Adrian Martinez would have liked to have back following Saturday’s loss, most notably his game-clinching interception in overtime.

But without another herculean effort by the fourth-year junior quarterback, the Huskers wouldn’t have had a chance in that game, to begin with.

The hope going into the season was that NU’s offense would give Martinez enough help to where he wouldn’t have to carry the offense week in single-handedly and week out.

It didn’t take long to realize that not much had changed in that regard, and Saturday night was another example that the only way Nebraska will move the ball and put points on the board is by riding Martinez down the field.

As good as Martinez can be at times - and he was great for most of the game - that reliance also leaves NU vulnerable to his propensity for making crucial mistakes at the worst times.

“He’s one of the best players that I’ve been around, and I think one of the best players in the country,” Frost said. “We rely on him. He did enough tonight for us to win… It’s a crying shame.”

Nebraska's defense shut down Michigan State's offense in the second half.
Nebraska's defense shut down Michigan State's offense in the second half. (USA Today)

3. The Blackshirts are back

Most expected Nebraska’s defense to be pretty good this season with the amount of depth and experience it returned from last year.

But it wasn’t until last week’s game at Oklahoma that the unit showed it was for real. On Saturday, the defense lived up to their Blackshirt billing in every sense.

Against a Michigan State offense that came in averaging 38.0 points per game and ranked 11th nationally in rushing, the Huskers made stop after stop to keep the team in the game and have a chance to win it in the end.

The Spartans ran just 15 plays for 14 yards and zero first downs in the second half. They finished with just 254 total yards and 12 first downs, were sacked three times, and threw an interception.

Once again, Nebraska’s defense played well enough to win the game, including doing so on the road against a ranked opponent for the second straight week.

4. Another game, another special teams meltdown

Whatever Nebraska was doing all offseason with its promised emphasis on improving special teams, it didn’t work.

Once again, the game’s third element committed one costly mistake after another and proved to be the turning point in deciding the final outcome.

The worst part is that the kicking game, which had been a disaster with Connor Culp the past few weeks, was perfect against Michigan State. Culp made both of his field goals - albeit each from just 28 yards - and extra points after missing seven total kicks over the first four games.

Instead, it was the punt team that stole the show as the Huskers' most glaring issue on Saturday night. Whether it was Daniel Cerni or William Przystup, Nebraska’s punters were awful against the Spartans.

Przystup got the start and averaged just 29.0 yards per punt, including a 28-yard kick and a seven-yard shank. Cerni averaged 37.0 yards on three punts, but one of those proved to be the worst blunder of the game.

With NU holding a 20-13 lead with four minutes left in regulation, Cerni rolled to his right and was supposed to kick the ball along the right sideline. Instead, he punted to the left side of the field, where Jayden Reed caught it with no one around him and took it 62 yards to the house.

“We’ve got to punt the ball,” Frost said. “We have guys at the university specifically for the reason to punt it, and we have a couple 10-yard punts that almost cost us, and then right when we need it the most, we kick it to the wrong side of the field. Some of the coverage guys didn’t see it, and it cost us the game.”

5. The offensive line continues to disappoint

To its credit, Nebraska’s offensive line finally started to look the part in the second half when it was able to grind out yards and wear down Michigan State’s defense in the second half.

Other than that, though, Saturday night was another ugly outing for the unit.

The pass protection was non-existent, as Martinez was sacked a whopping seven times for a loss of 34 yards. While able to chew up the clock, the running game averaged just 3.8 yards per carry (including a 45-yard Martinez scramble that was nearly another sack).

Worst of all, four different offensive linemen committed false start penalties. Matt Sichterman and Cam Jurgens had two back-to-back on NU’s second drive, and then Trent Hixson and Bryce Benhart committed one after the Huskers had moved to the MSU nine-yard line, forcing them to settle for a field goal.

Television cameras caught Frost ripping the o-line on the sideline, and he didn’t hold back when asked about the continued false start issues.

“Coach (Greg) Austin stands behind those guys every day in practice and yells, “Move!” and get the d-line to shift,” Frost said. “Everything we know how to do to keep them from doing it - they’ve got to stay calm and do their job and not just offsides.”

Rahmir Johnson was the clear No. 1 running back for the second week in a row.
Rahmir Johnson was the clear No. 1 running back for the second week in a row. (USA Today)

6. The defense bottled up Walker

The talk all week for Nebraska’s defense was how it planned to slow down Michigan State’s talented running back, Kenneth Walker III.

It turned out the Blackshirts were able to do that better than almost anyone could have expected.

Coming in leading the nation at 164.3 rushing yards per game, Walker ended up with a season-low 64 yards on 19 carries on Saturday. Of those 64 yards, 23 came on one run in overtime.

After averaging nearly nine yards per carry through the three games, Walker had just 3.2 ypc in the win.

7. Johnson was the clear No. 1 running back again

After seemingly coming out of nowhere to make his first career start and get the lion’s share of the running back workload last week at Oklahoma, Rahmir Johnson remained at the top of the depth chart at Michigan State.

Not only did he get the starting nod for the second straight game, but he was the clear No. 1 by a wide margin when it came to snaps and carries.

Johnson led NU with a career-high 76 yards on 19 rushes, including runs of 18 and 15 yards.

Sevion Morrison was next among running backs with three carries for 15 yards, while Markese Stepp had just one rush for two yards.

8. Smothers held his own in brief opportunity

Logan Smothers probably didn’t expect to play much going into the game, but his number was called on just Nebraska’s second offensive series of the night.

Martinez took a big hit on NU’s third play and was on the turf for several minutes before finally getting up under his own power. He then went to the locker room for further examination.

In his absence, Smothers checked in had held his own during his unexpected opportunity. He completed his first pass to Omar Manning for four yards and then converted a third-and-two with a seven-yard keeper.

Smothers helped move the Huskers to the MSU 40 with a chance to score before two straight false starts killed the drive. Martinez returned to the game and took over on the ensuing possession.

Backup quarterback Logan Smothers did his part while filling in for Martinez for a drive.
Backup quarterback Logan Smothers did his part while filling in for Martinez for a drive. (USA Today)

9. Add kickoff coverage to NU’s list of concerns

One of the few positives for Nebraska’s special teams this season was how much better it had gotten in getting the ball into the end zone on kickoffs.

Brendan Franke had turned one of the Huskers' problem areas into essentially a non-issue by booting 14 of his first 20 kickoffs for touchbacks.

It was a windy day in East Lansing with heavy gusts out of the southwest, and when NU had to kick toward the south end zone, Franke’s kicks could only get inside the five.

As a result, the Spartans averaged 28.0 yards on three kickoff returns on Saturday, including a 41-yarder by Reed.

10. A touching tribute to Foltz, Sadler

Before the opening kickoff, Michigan State made a classy and touching gesture to honor the late Sam Foltz and Mike Sadler, who were tragically killed in a car accident in 2016.

Families of both players were honored on the field, and there was a moment of silence in the stadium in their honor. During the pre-game coin toss, the officials used a commemorative coin with Foltz and Sadler’s likenesses on each side.

It was a nice touch by the Spartans, but it was also an emotional scene for the families. The memories of Foltz and Sadler remain strong within both programs.