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It was a game Nebraska absolutely had to win in order to keep its hopes of a Big Ten championship alive, and the Huskers simply handed it away to No. 16 Michigan State on Saturday.
Nebraska turned the ball over a staggering five times, directly resulting in 24 points for the Spartans in a 41-28 loss that officially slammed the door on NU's chances at a Legends Division title. The four fumbles and one interception marked the most turnovers the Huskers have committed in a game since they tied a school-record with eight giveaways in a 9-7 loss to Iowa State in 2009.
Quarterback Tommy Armstrong had easily his worst outing of the season, completing just 9-of-21 passes for 143 yards while fumbling three times along with an interception. On the other side, redshirt freshman quarterback Connor Cook guided a conservative but successful offensive attack for Michigan State, which was led by a game-high 151 rushing yards and two touchdowns from junior running back Jeremy Langford.
"Obviously I just left a locker room with kids that are disappointed," head coach Bo Pelini said. "I told them, I'm proud of them. I'm proud of the way they fought. We didn't lose that football game because of a lack of effort or a lack of want-to. We just made too many mistakes to overcome. I told them, it's a team loss. We didn't play well enough. We couldn't overcome ourselves. Obviously everybody's disappointed. We just made too many mistakes to overcome. It's hard to be minus-five in the turnover category and win a football game against a quality football team."
To say things got off to a poor start for the Nebraska would be the understatement of the century, as the Huskers gave the ball away four times in the first two quarters to essentially spot Michigan State a 13-point lead going into halftime.
The first giveaway came on NU's opening possession with a botched option pitch between Armstrong and freshman running back Terrell Newby that gave the Spartans the ball at the Nebraska 40 barely a minute into the game. Michigan State capitalized with a 45-yard field goal by Michael Geiger with 12:23 to go in the first quarter.
The second turnover came on the Huskers' ensuing drive, as Armstrong badly missed his target on a short pass and was picked off by Kurtis Drummond at the NU 46. Nebraska's defense, which actually played quite well given the extremely difficult circumstances, was able to hold ground and force an MSU punt, but it wouldn't be quite so lucky after the next big blunder.
After forcing a three-and-out from Michigan State's offense, Jordan Westerkamp fumbled on the ensuing punt return and the Spartans recovered at the Husker 8-yard line. Two plays later, receiver R.J. Shelton took a 5-yard rush around the left end for a touchdown to give MSU a 10-0 lead with 4:57 left in the opening quarter.
When it wasn't giving the football away, Nebraska's offense was having decent success against Michigan State's vaunted defense. The Huskers were finally able to stay out of their own way on their next drive, and Armstrong found a wide-open Sam Burtch all alone along the right sideline for a 32-yard touchdown pass with 2:44 to go in the first. With the score, the Memorial Stadium crowd of more than 90,000 was right back into the game, and momentum appeared to be back in NU's favor.
That was until Michigan State got the ball back, though. The Spartans responded by grinding the ball 74 yards on 17 plays and adding another Geiger field goal from 25 yards out to put their lead back up to 13-7 early in the second quarter. Nebraska's offense failed to get anything going the rest of the half, and just when it looked like they would take a six-point deficit into the locker room at halftime, the offense came up with one last crucial miscue.
Facing a third-and-long deep in their own territory with just over a minute left and Michigan State out of timeouts, the Huskers ran a quarterback draw with Armstrong, who was hit from behind and fumbled the ball. The Spartans recovered at the NU 22 and punched in a six-yard touchdown run by Langford with 39 seconds left on the clock, making it 20-7 going into the second half.
"They weren't nervous," Pelini said of his players. "We weren't rattled. I'll have to look at it on film, but I've been around it before. Putting the football on the ground four times and then an interception where if we just take the flat route - like I said, we just made too many mistakes to beat a football team like that. We were our own worst enemy."
Running back Ameer Abdullah was one of the few offensive bright spots for Nebraska in the first half, as he rushed 13 times for 87 of his team-high 123 yards. With the help of four NU turnovers, Michigan State owned a 19:25-10:35 advantage in time of possession and ran 42 plays to the Huskers' 26.
As badly as the game began for Nebraska, things definitely started looking up to kick off of third quarter. Penalties put Michigan State at a first-and-35 on its first possession of the half, and after an MSU punt the Huskers wasted no time taking advantage. Sophomore Imani Cross took a zone-read handoff up the middle 51 yards for a touchdown to get Nebraska right back into the game at 20-14.
"I thought we handled ourselves well," receiver Kenny Bell said. "We were resilient. We played our tails off tonight. There was no lack of want-to or heart. Guys played hard tonight, we just didn't play smart and we lost the football game because of five turnovers. You turn the ball over five times, you're not going to beat an average team let alone a pretty stout one."
Once again, though, the turnover bug struck the Huskers at the worst of times. Backed up at their own one-yard line after another stellar punt Mike Sadler, Armstrong was hit by pulling guard Cole Pensick, and the ball popped loose and was recovered by MSU at the Nebraska 3. Langford quickly ran it around the left end for a touchdown to push the lead back up to 27-14.
While it seemed like they simply couldn't catch a break, the Huskers refused to go down without a fight and responded in a big way with a 38-yard touchdown pass from Armstrong to Bell in the corner of the end zone. The momentum then looked like it truly had swung towards NU when cornerback Stanley Jean-Baptiste jumped in front of Cook's pass at the MSU 35, but the interception was overturned after replay showed the ball hit the ground.
It wouldn't take long for Michigan State to take back control of the game from there, as the Spartans eventually marched 75 yards on 10 plays, including a gutsy fake field goal run by the holder Sadler on fourth-and-1, and scored on a pretty 27-yard touchdown pass from Cook to receiver Keith Mumphery with just under eight minutes remaining in the game. Langford put the final nail in the coffin with a 37-yard touchdown run with 1:58 remaining.
Senior quarterback Ron Kellogg checked into the game for NU's final drive and led NU to one final touchdown with just 10 seconds to play, hitting Abdullah on a 12-yard scoring pass to give the game its final score, 41-28.
Nebraska is now mathematically eliminated from Legends Division contention, as the race is now down to Michigan State and Minnesota (8-2, 4-2), which was on bye this week. The Huskers will travel to Penn State (6-4, 3-3) next week. Kickoff for the game has yet to be announced.
"We lost the game today because we made too many mistakes," Pelini said. "Our kids, they played with heart, they played with passion, and like I said, as a head football coach, that's all you can ask for. We'll go fix the things that need fixed moving forward. This is a heck of a team. These kids stick together. They're going to stick together, and we need to come out and get ready to go next week."