Instant Analysis: Nebraska's win over Michigan State shakes up Big Ten

Nebraska upset Michigan State, 39-38, in Lincoln on Saturday. Here are three thoughts on the Cornhuskers' win.
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Michigan State won its first eight games of the season but narrowly avoided defeat several times in the process. Nebraska won just three of its first nine games while seemingly losing in heartbreaking fashion every week. On Saturday night, the two programs reversed roles.

Thanks in no small part to a controversial call that will put the competency of a conference’s referees in the national spotlight for the second straight week, the Cornhuskers upset the eighth-ranked Spartans 39–38 in Lincoln. Tommy Armstrong Jr.’s 30-yard touchdown pass to Brandon Reilly with 17 seconds left (which arguably shouldn’t have counted) proved to be the difference. Michigan State had a final shot at getting a game-winning field goal attempt or a heave into the end zone, but with seven seconds left and the Spartans on the Nebraska 41-yard line, Connor Cook couldn’t throw the ball away before time expired, giving the Huskers the win.

Here are three thoughts on the game:

1. Yet another controversial ending

After last week brought the Miami-Duke ending, which resulted in the ACC reprimanding and suspending the referees involved, we’re likely to see the Big Ten follow a similar course of action this week because of the Armstrong-Reilly touchdown. The Big Ten probably won’t be as severe in its punishment, but there should be an admission that the call was blown at the least.

Reilly’s touchdown was ruled a reception because the officials stated that, though Reilly stepped out of bounds, he was forced out by the defender covering him and he re-established position on the field before catching the ball, making it a legal play. The problem is that replays showed it was glaringly obvious that he was not forced out of bounds by the defender. That means Nebraska should have been penalized for illegal touching and, more importantly, the play should not have counted.

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Michigan State defensive back Jermaine Edmondson, who was in one-on-one coverage on Reilly, was turned away from Reilly during the entire stretch when the receiver stepped out of bounds and re-entered. The Big Ten is going to have to explain how Edmonson was ruled to have forced Reilly in a perpendicular direction from which each was running. It’s also unclear why the play then came under review—the out-of-bounds call involved is not subject to being overturned on replay. Perhaps a different aspect of the play was being looked at, but that wasn’t made clear at all.

It’s not quite a parallel situation to the Miami-Duke game-ender, as Nebraska feasibly could’ve gone on to score anyway had the touchdown not counted and Michigan State had a chance (albeit not a great one) to win the game after it anyway. But that won’t take the sting away for the Spartans. This loss ended their perfect season and could ultimately keep them out of the playoff, and it’s very possible, if not probable, they would’ve won if not for the blown call. That is a bitter pill to swallow.

After being the beneficiary of an extremely unlikely turn of events against Michigan a few weeks ago, Michigan State now finds itself on the other end of a similar situation.

2. Michigan State’s loss shakes up Big Ten East and Big Ten’s playoff odds

With the upset, the Spartans have lost control of their destiny for making the playoff. Had they finished as an undefeated Big Ten champ, they would’ve surely earned a bid, but as a potential one-loss Big Ten winner, a spot in the field would be far from guaranteed. At that point it’d probably come down to a résumé comparison against one or two other teams, and the fact MSU’s loss came to a sub-.500 team would really hurt.

Conference-wise, the loss doesn’t really change much for the Spartans. If they win out—and that’s a big if, since they have to travel to Ohio State in two weeks—they’ll still take the Big Ten East since they’ll have tiebreakers over Ohio State and Michigan. The situation is pretty much the same for the Buckeyes too. Win out and they’ll win the East.

The big beneficiary of Saturday night’s result, then, is Michigan. Before the Huskers’ win, the Wolverines’ only hope to win the division was to upset Ohio State in the regular-season finale, have the Buckeyes beat Michigan State the week before and then hope they could vault both rivals in the final College Football Playoff rankings, which would’ve served as the tiebreaker. Now, though, as long as Ohio State beats Michigan State (which seems likely at this point), a win over the hated Buckeyes will send the Wolverines to Indianapolis. That would be bad news for the Big Ten at large—if a two-loss Michigan team ends up beating Iowa in the conference title game, the league will probably get shut out of the playoff—but it’d obviously be a fantastic result for the maize-and-blue faithful.

3. Nebraska finally has one go its away

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This season has been pure heartbreak for the Huskers. A quick recap: In Week 1, they lost on a last-second Hail Mary by BYU quarterback Tanner Mangum; in Week 3, they came back from 23 points down only to lose to Miami in overtime; in Week 5, they lost to Illinois on a touchdown pass with 10 seconds left; in Week 6, they lost to Wisconsin on a field goal with four seconds left; and in Week 8, they lost to Northwestern after the Wildcats held on in the final minutes.

Nebraska has hardly resembled a conference contender, but it’s still been the most snakebitten team in the country. So despite the controversy involved with Saturday night’s ending, it was heartening to see the Huskers finally pull out a close game when they very easily could’ve suffered another gut punch of a loss. There are still very real questions about the future of the program under first-year coach Mike Riley, but for one week at least, Nebraska has something to celebrate.