EAST LANSING, Mich. -- Because everyone figured the bludgeoning had taken, because everyone figured Michigan State had thrown enough hammers and loose tractor parts at Nebraska to eliminate the visitors’ ability to see straight, let alone stand up, of course there would be no such thing as an easy way out on Saturday.
The Spartans reestablished their Big Ten dominance. Then they had to hold on for dear life to maintain it, watching a 24-point lead dwindle to a one-score advantage with three minutes to play before ultimately walking out with a 27-22 win. That made it 11 league victories in a row, but that maybe made it less than satisfying.
Michigan State would have benefited most from a statement win, a full-throttle flattening of the perceived next-best team in an embattled league. That would have been the best way to recharge hopes for a College Football Playoff berth. Instead, it suffered through a punt return score from Nebraska, a missed field goal with a minute to go and a final desperation series from the Cornhuskers before exhaling.
Here are quick thoughts after the win:
1. Michigan State’s defense reasserted itself
The Cornhuskers arrived with the nation’s No. 2 rushing offense, averaging 354.8 yards per game. They ran for just 47 in East Lansing. Tailback Ameer Abdullah, who entered the week with an FBS-best 833 rushing yards, managed just 45 against a defense that thoroughly outclassed the Huskers’ offensive line.
At nearly every consequential early interval, coordinator Pat Narduzzi’s defense made game-altering plays to choke the hope out of Nebraska. One such first-half sequence: A fumble by Michigan State’s Jeremy Langford gave the Cornhuskers the ball on the plus-side of the 50 … and the Spartans defense pushed them back, aided by a personal foul call on a Nebraska lineman, forcing a punt. That punt was then muffed by Michigan State’s Macgarrett Kings Jr. for another turnover, and with Nebraska subsequently knocking on the door of the end zone, Spartans linebacker Ed Davis threw a Punch-Out!!-type jab to knock the ball from Abdullah for a fumble that Shilique Calhoun recovered and returned well out of harm’s way.
Go figure, then, that it was star cornerback Trae Waynes and the defense notching the game-clinching interception with 30 seconds to play.
2. Ameer Abdullah’s Heisman hopes took a shot, but not a fatal blow
There may be no other high-profile games remaining on Nebraska’s schedule until a possible trip to the league championship game in December. Such is the curse of inhabiting the post-nuclear hellscape that is the Big Ten West. Still, if the Huskers’ offensive line recovers and the senior tailback reverts to form, there’s enough consternation among the top contenders for the award that he could sneak back into the conversation. It just won’t be a convincing argument for a while.
Potentially further undermining matters: The health of receiver Kenny Bell, who left in the second quarter with what appeared to be a groin or leg issue. Without Bell to stretch the field, more defenses will pin their ears back to stop Abdullah.
3. The way this result will be perceived is unclear
For Michigan State, winning huge would have been great. Winning by clenching teeth and crossing fingers late into the fourth quarter was not.
The Spartans’ offense threw haymakers like Connor Cook’s 55-yard touchdown pass to Tony Lippett in the first quarter and Lippett’s 32-yard scamper for a score on a reverse in the third. But the attack was not consistent, with Cook going just 11 of 29 and the offense coughing up two turnovers. Meanwhile, Oregon’s loss to Arizona on Thursday night threatened to put a dent in Michigan State’s argument for having the best possible sort of loss on its schedule.
Ohio State’s resurgence helps, as the Buckeyes will visit East Lansing on Nov. 8 and provide another chance for a quality win. And if the Spartans were going to prevail on Saturday, a blowout was the best possible way to do so, to give the impression of distinct separation from the rest of the Big Ten chaff. That almost happened, and then it didn’t. One wonders if that will cost them down the line.