EAST LANSING, Mich. – This wasn’t the worst possible ending for Michigan State, celebrating before a half-emptied stadium on a bracing October night. There were realities that were far less attractive and far more corrosive, at least when compared to a last-minute interception sealing a win just as a bit of the day’s college football madness seeped in. The Spartans beat Nebraska. That was the ending they hoped for. This just happened to be the worst version of it.
Michigan State had bludgeoned its unbeaten visitors for a good, long while. It had reestablished Big Ten dominance through its preferred method of unrepentant bullying. The Spartans permitted the nation’s leading rusher a measly two yards per carry and held the nation’s second-best run offense to 300 yards fewer than its standard output. And what Michigan State came up with after all of this was a 27-22 victory, with the Cornhuskers’ 19 fourth-quarter points blurring the optics of the whole thing. In a flash, the end undermined what was the perfect statement from a team looking to separate itself from the chaff of the bedraggled Big Ten.
“If you stayed to the end, it was a great football game,” Michigan State coach Mark Dantonio said. “I wish it wasn’t. But it was.”
No, great was building a 24-point lead on the bones of a Nebraska offense with a Heisman Trophy aspirant, a formidable attack that fueled a 5-0 start and the hope that, somehow, this year was vastly different than the last 10 that devolved into a four-loss no man’s land. Nearly blowing it all? Not so great. The Spartans are seeking to distinguish themselves as a college football playoff contender, with few ifs or buts or asterisks. To do that, they’ll ideally demonstrate a gaping disparity between themselves and their conference peers. The Big Ten’s reputation is damaged beyond repair at this point, and so the only way to benefit from playing in the Big Ten is to treat everyone in the league like gum on the sidewalk.
A five-point win over Nebraska keeps Michigan State humming along. And ultimately a one-loss Big Ten champion may prove impossible to ignore for one of the four coveted playoff spots. But the quality of the Spartans’ one loss to Oregon already suffered a dent with the Ducks’s loss to Arizona two days earlier. There was so much more to gain with a blowout Saturday -- and so much more that the Spartans, for a time, did in fact gain -- that this result seemed like a letdown, if not a bitter disappointment. “A lesson to learn for me as a player,” quarterback Connor Cook said, “is to never be comfortable.”
He conceded that a certain relaxation washed over him when receiver Tony Lippett took a reverse 32 yards for a score in the third quarter, building a 27-3 lead. Surely the junior was not alone in that sentiment.
“It was in control,” Dantonio said. “We were in control of the football game. I’m just glad I’m not sitting here talking about how it slipped away.”
For that, Dantonio can thank a defense that played rapaciously enough to contend with anyone in the country on Saturday. If there is disenchantment with the results, precious little of it should be directed at coordinator Pat Narduzzi’s crew, which made nearly every enormous play at every consequential moment. The Spartans forced four turnovers, including the win-clinching interception by Trae Waynes with 30 seconds left and the Cornhuskers driving. They collected five sacks. They held Nebraska tailback Ameer Abdullah, who entered the game with a nation-leading 833 yards, to just 45 yards on the ground at a rate of 1.9 yards per carry. Remove the lost sack yardage from the calculation, and Nebraska collected just 72 yards on the ground. It averaged 354.8 coming in.
Each Nebraska offensive series seemed scripted by Thomas Hobbes: brutish, nasty and short. Michigan State fumbled on back-to-back plays in the second quarter; the defense responded with a three-and-out and a forced fumble of its own. Early in the third quarter, defensive end Marcus Rush blew around the edge and crushed Nebraska quarterback Tommy Armstrong Jr. As Armstrong writhed face down on the turf, Rush took a step back. He looked down. Then he raised his arms and flexed his biceps and nodded.
If Michigan State is to campaign for playoff inclusion, Saturday re-proved its has a defense few contenders can surpass. “It was the pursuit angles, it was tackling in space, it was great structure, it was guys doing their jobs,” Dantonio said. “We won the football game on defense. Let’s just call it what it is.”
Here’s what this was for Nebraska: A loss that might extinguish its playoff hopes, what with the Big Ten West looking like a post-apocalyptic landscape. The Cornhuskers came in search of a platform, some stage that would establish exactly where they stood after five games without a loss. And it absolutely got a platform Saturday night. Or at least a version of one. Because, hey, operating tables are platforms, and Spartan Stadium was the abandoned basement with the one flickering fluorescent light. Presiding over the evening’s procedure was Michigan State. There would be no anesthesia, and the Spartans use only hammers and repurposed tractor hubcaps for this particular operation.
“Honestly, it’s not the last time [Michigan State] is going to see us, I can promise you that,” said Armstrong, who was 20 of 43 for 273 yards and two picks. “We plan on going 11-1, making the Big Ten Championship. We plan on seeing Michigan State again.”
The Spartans would hope to be unrecognizable in that case, in at least some ways. Cook was just 11 of 29 on Saturday and deemed the effort “pretty unacceptable.” Michigan State’s finishing ability, in all phases, must be refined. There was work to be done almost no matter the result, but at least the bloodstains from what they had done to Nebraska through three quarters would have distracted everyone from the shortcomings.
As it is, Michigan State got the result it wanted in the worst possible way. It will need Oregon to collect itself, it will need Ohio State to remain on an ascent through a Nov. 8 meeting in East Lansing, and it will need to throttle as many Big Ten foes as possible to create an aura the selection committee cannot ignore. It missed a chance to build some of that Saturday.
"We're still chasing another championship," Michigan State defensive end Shilique Calhoun said. "I feel like we came out with that attitude today."
They'll need to carry it to the conclusion from here.