LINCOLN, Neb. – For a bunch of people who hadn’t experienced this feeling in 364 days, the Michigan State Spartans handled it with matter-of-fact restraint.
They trudged to their locker room Saturday night, 39-38 losers to Nebraska, amid fans streaming onto the Memorial Stadium turf, and handed out a few hugs of congratulations to the elated Cornhuskers. They talked in the locker room about moving forward, not pointing fingers, still controlling their destiny in the Big Ten East.
They declined to blame the late call that allowed Nebraska’s winning touchdown to stand, though it will be discussed long after this. They handled the post-game much better than they handled the end of the game, which resulted in perhaps the worst loss of Mark Dantonio’s MSU tenure.
“We were so close, had the game in our hands,” MSU senior quarterback Connor Cook said, “and to see it just ripped away like that in that short amount of time, it kind of hurts.”
Downtrodden, desperate Nebraska (4-6, 2-4 Big Ten) snatched it away with a 91-yard drive in 38 seconds, capped by Tommy Armstrong Jr.’s 30-yard touchdown pass to Brandon Reilly with 17 seconds left.
This came a play after MSU’s Arjen Colquhoun dropped an interception in the end zone, after Armstrong ripped off completions of 33 and 28 yards against soft coverage, after MSU led 38-26 with less than 2 minutes to play, and after Dantonio decided to run clock and play to defend rather than risk a throw with his best asset, Cook.
It came even though Reilly went out of bounds on his route, which makes him an ineligible receiver. After huddling, officials determined MSU cornerback Jermaine Edmondson forced him out of bounds.
The replay showed Reilly went out of bounds on his own. Replay officials reviewed the play and the touchdown stood, though the call itself on Edmondson forcing Reilly out isn’t supposed to be reviewable.
Bill Carollo, the Big Ten’s coordinator of officials, said in a statement after the game via ESPN: “They can’t review whether it was a force out/contact on the play. They can only review if there was clear evidence of no contact and he (Reilly) re-established himself in the field of play. If he goes out of bounds on his own with no contact, it’s an illegal touch. Therefore the call stood.”
Dantonio said he saw the replay afterward but said “it’s not my job” to judge.
“It’s no more difficult than blowing a coverage or missing a tackle or anything else,” Dantonio said of the call. “Or not calling the right defense or the offense not calling the correct offensive play. Everybody’s gonna take responsibility for this. I can tell you that our offense is gonna take responsibility. The head coach is certainly gonna take responsibility. I can tell you the defense is gonna take responsibility. And every individual player will.
“So there’s plenty to go around. But with that being said, you’ve got to credit the people who played against you, and I didn’t think the officiating lost us the football game.”
The No. 6-and-soon-to-drop Spartans (8-1, 4-1) can point mostly to a shredded defense for the program’s first loss since Nov. 8, 2014 against Ohio State. MSU’s 12-game winning streak as a program is over, though Big Ten title hopes aren’t – if the Spartans win out at home against Maryland, at No. 1 Ohio State and home against Penn State, they’ll win the Big Ten East Division and play in the league title game Dec. 5 in Indianapolis.
If the Spartans can get all the way to the end with a 12-1 record and get some help elsewhere, they could still sneak into the four-team College Football Playoff, though that looks like a remote possibility both in terms of the landscape and the Spartans’ level of play.
“I’ve got a lot of confidence,” Cook said of still having a playoff chance. “I think if we go in and we run the table and we beat Maryland, Ohio State and Penn State, and obviously teams in front of us have to lose as well, why not?”
It didn’t appear Cook (22-for-37, 335 yards, four touchdowns, one interception) would be talking about much else but breaking Kirk Cousins’ MSU career touchdown pass record after the game with 4:16 left, after he led a 16-play, 75-yard touchdown drive that took nearly 9 minutes off the clock.
That made it 38-26 Spartans and featured more clutch conversions of third-and-long situations. R.J. Shelton had the key 23-yard grab on a third-and-11, on a night that saw Aaron Burbridge (10 catches, career-high 164 yards, one touchdown) and Macgarrett Kings Jr. (four catches, 97 yards, two touchdowns) make similar plays repeatedly.
Wide receiver Stanley Morgan Jr. #8 of the Nebraska Cornhuskers is surrounded by the Michigan State Spartans defense during their game at Memorial Stadium on November 7, 2015 in Lincoln, Nebraska.
But Armstrong (320 yards, two touchdowns, two interceptions) quickly led a 53-yard touchdown drive, the 2-point pass falling incomplete to make it 38-33 with 1:47 left. MSU’s Demetrious Cox handled the ensuing onside kick at the Nebraska 44.
MSU ran Gerald Holmes (22 carries, career-high 117 yards, touchdown) twice for 1-yard gains, killing Nebraska’s final two timeouts. Then came the decision to run tight end Jamal Lyles on an end-around with 1:35 remaining, rather than let Cook throw on third down.
A holding call on Donavon Clark cost the Spartans 15 seconds that would have run off, and Nebraska ended up with the ball at its 9-yard line with 55 seconds to play.
“If we threw the ball, it would have stopped the clock if it was incomplete, and that’s always the risk,” said Dantonio, and Cook said he didn’t try to campaign to throw on the possession.
“No, I mean, I have confidence in the coaches and I believe what they believe in,” Cook said. “And if they want to run and we could take some time off the clock and do that, then I was all for it.”
Nebraska ripped down the field on a night that saw the Cornhuskers gain 499 total yards, while running the ball better than they have for most of the season (179 yards) and yielding no sacks.
Asked how out of character it is for an MSU defense to give up such an easy touchdown drive at a critical moment, junior linebacker Riley Bullough said: “It is, a lot.”
“We’re playing our prevent defense and obviously it didn’t work too well for that certain possession,” Bullough said. “So we’ll look at it and see what happened. Obviously, you can never let that happen.”
Nebraska first-year coach Mike Riley said he “really thought initially” that Reilly was going to be ruled out of bounds, which would have meant third down at the MSU 30 with 17 seconds left.
“We were getting ready for another play from about the 30-yard line, is what we were actually preparing for,” Riley said, “and then we were actually surprised when they signaled touchdown.”
Cook had a final chance after a short Nebraska kickoff, finding Kings for 17 yards down to the Nebraska 41. With 7 seconds left, he wanted to hit Kings over the middle to set up a Michael Geiger field-goal attempt, but Nebraska took it away and time expired as Cook threw the ball out of bounds. That was close, too.
“I didn’t know whether there was one second left there or not, I thought maybe there was because (the officials) were sort of stopping, but whatever,” Dantonio said. “Some things you can control, some things you can’t.”
After winning 34 of their previous 37 games, the Spartans lost control against a 3-6 opponent. Then they calmly promised to regain it.
“We’re gonna bounce back,” Bullough said, “I can assure you that.”