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Offensive coordinator Tim Beck struggled to find the words to describe how Nebraska, which had otherwise played quite well, managed to turn the ball over five times and lose a winnable game with the division on the line. Ameer Abdullah became the first opponent to rush for more than 100 yards against Michigan State, the Huskers piled up more yards than any MSU opponent this season and the defense held strong despite being put in several tough situations.
But oh, those turnovers. The Huskers gave the ball back on three of their first four possessions and three times put Michigan State within 22 yards of their end zone. No matter how well the rest of the game went, those numbers are hard to overcome.
Unfortunately, this has become a recurring theme for Nebraska. It was the fifth time this season that the Huskers fumbled four or more times in a game, a number on par with the production from other seasons. There is still season left to salvage here, but if NU keeps putting the ball on the ground, it might not matter how well the rest of the team plays.
On with the rewind…
Five defining moments
The botched pitch from Tommy Armstrong to Terrell Newby: Unfortunately, this play set the tone for how the rest of the game would play out. After gaining a quick first down on the opening drive, the Huskers gave the ball back to MSU when Newby couldn't corral a pitch from Armstrong that hit him in the hands. The Spartans only mustered a field goal, but this play, coupled with Armstrong's interception on the next drive, had to kill some of the offense's confidence.
Jordan Westerkamp's fumble on a punt return: The Huskers already had two turnovers at this point, but a pair of strong defensive stands limited Michigan State to three points. But Westerkamp fumbled the ball while being tackled and MSU recovered at NU's eight-yard line. The Spartans would score two plays later to take a 10-0 lead.
Kenny Bell's ridiculous touchdown catch: With the third quarter winding down, the Huskers faced a third-and-nine situation at MSU's 38-yard line. Instead of just trying to pick up the first, Armstrong chucked a deep ball to Bell, who make a spectacular leaping catch over the defender and held on after landing square on his back. It seemed impossible that Bell would top the one-handed grab he made against Illinois, but he may have done that with this scoring snag.
Michigan State's fake field goal: Trailing 27-21 early in the fourth quarter, the Spartans faced a fourth and one and it appeared they would take the three points and a two-score lead. But holder Mike Sadler picked the ball up and ran forward with kicker Michael Geiger as a lead blocker, rushing for three yards and a first down. MSU would score a touchdown on the drive to take a 13-point lead.
Nebraska's goal-line fumble: Backed up on their own one-yard line, the Huskers made a critical blunder that no one involved can explain. Armstrong said he never received the snap, but the ball immediately squirted out to the right, where it was recovered by Michigan State. Pulling guard Cole Pensick appeared to knock the ball away, but both he and center Mark Pelini said they simply don't know what happened. Jeremy Langford ran the ball in from three yards out on the next play to put MSU up 27-14 midway through the third.
Ameer Abdullah: Despite leading the Big Ten in rushing yards, there were some that questioned whether the back would reach 50 against Michigan State's stone wall of a defense, which was giving up just 43 yards a game coming in. Abdullah quieted the doubters with 123 yards on 22 carries (5.6 average) and didn't have a single rush for negative yardage. He also caught a 12-yard scoring pass from Ron Kellogg on NU's final drive.
Kurtis Drummond, Michigan State: The safety was a menace for Nebraska all afternoon. Not only did he pile up a game-high 10 tackles, but he also forced a fumble and picked off Armstrong on Nebraska's second drive.
Nebraska's offensive line: I'm cheating a bit in giving this to the entire unit, but it's impossible to single anyone out in this great effort. Jeremiah Sirles didn't play in the second half, but he gutted out a tough first half after being listed as doubtful with a knee injury. Pensick and Andrew Rodriguez both performed well despite playing out of position, while Pelini and Zach Sterup continued to deal well with their first big opportunities under the lights. Nebraska didn't allow a sack and rushed for 182 yards against the nation's best statistical defense.
By the numbers
0: Recpetions by Quincy Enunwa, the first time in the past two seasons that he's gone without catching a pass. Enunwa was targeted three times, but was unable to come down with any as Armstrong targeted Bell and Sam Burtch far more often.
38:37: Michigan State's time of possession. The Spartans wanted to control the clock by running the ball and converting third downs, and they succeeded in both areas. MSU ran 80 plays to Nebraska's 64 and converted 11 of its 21 third-down attempts.
-4: Total punt return yardage for Nebraska. Considering that the Huskers also fumbled a punt and let a few others be downed inside the 10 yard-line, this game was a disaster for the punt-return units. Westerkamp turned the ball over for a second straight game, but where does Nebraska go from here? They've tried several guys back returning, but none have had any success.
86: Receiving yards for Burtch, whose emergence was one of the biggest positives to come out of this game. With Jamal Turner sidelined and Westerkamp still smarting from his hip pointer, Burtch turned in career highs with five catches and 86 yards, including a 32-yard scoring reception in the first quarter.
They said it
"It's just dumbfounding. We put a lot of emphasis on it and for the most part this year, we've been a lot better. But those mistakes today were just… (sighs). You just can't put a finger on it. It's just dumbfounding."
Beck on his emotions when turnovers continued to submarine an otherwise strong offensive effort
"Our job is to stop people. We didn't get any turnovers ourselves, and that made a big difference. Special teams-wise, we did not create the long field for them enough and we didn't get field position enough for our offense. If you look at the two things we should be doing defensively, we didn't get that done and Michigan State did."
Linebackers coach Ross Els on keeping the defense's confidence up when it keeps getting put in tough situations by turnovers
"We've got some senior guys, and we were telling him, 'You have to let it go. It happened. Move on.' I think it took him a while to figure him out, but towards the end he was like, 'We're still in this. Let's go."
Pensick on Armstrong's demeanor throughout the game
Biggest question/concern: Where do the Huskers go at quarterback?
It doesn't look like Taylor Martinez is coming back, and Armstrong really struggled. Granted, he was playing the conference's best defense, but the freshman fumbled twice and threw a costly pick. Armstrong also completed just nine of his 21 passes and gained only nine yards on five carries. Armstrong still may very well be the Huskers starter for the future (though Johnny Stanton might have something to say about that), but it doesn't seem that Kellogg is the answer. The Huskers have to stick with Armstrong or risk hurting his confidence going forward, but he simply must play better in the coming weeks. Even if everyone else on the team plays well, it's tough to win a college football game when the quarterback falters. Whether or not Armstrong can pickup the pieces might define where Nebraska goes from here.