Huskers Wear Down Spartans for Their First Loss of October, 24-3 at MSU's Memorial Stadium-Big Ten Debut

Jonathan Schopp

On a classic fall day in one of the great settings in College Football, the Spartans had to come out and match the intensity of the desperate Huskers, and the 85,641 strong (317th straight sell out, since 1962) at Memorial Stadium. More than that, they had to find a way to maintain their intensity all day long. It hardly looked to be an easy task coming in, and to the credit of the Huskers, they capitalized on enough big plays to gain the edge and grind out the Spartans out, 24-3.

The Spartans lost the toss and took the opening kick back to their 17, though the play was highlighted by a helmet to helmet “block” from Nebraska’s Stanley Jean-Baptiste (So. CB) to the head of Larry Caper (Jr. RB) that seemed to knock Caper out cold for a moment or two. Caper would not return, and it would hardly be the last injury of the day. After making nice progress with Le’Veon Bell on the ground towards mid-field (MSU 46) to start the drive, the historically reliable Red Shirt connection of Kirk Cousins (Rs.-Sr. QB) and B.J. Cunningham (Rs.-Sr. WR) was rudely interrupted on a pattern run over the middle.

Cousins appeared to throw just behind Cunningham, if at all, and was picked off nicely by Nebraska’s Lance Thorell (Sr. DB). Thorell returned it all the way to the MSU 25. The play's timing looked like it might have been affected a bit by the Official behind the Nebraska Linebackers, but not to anyone's fault. It was an immediate momentum reversal that flattened out the Spartan Offense. The Huskers used the early turnover and return as a powerful energy shot that shaped the rest of the day, and propelled the Blackshirts to their best performance of 2011.

Lining up on a very short field, Nebraska went straight to the ground for seven consecutive snaps, and took the 7-0 lead. During the drive, Jerel Worthy (Rs.-Jr. DT) had to come off the field, which obviously helped Nebraska gain an edge at the line. To their credit though, the Huskers made sure to capitalize with points off their first opportunity of the day.

Nick Hill (Rs.-Fr. RB) answered the opening score with a 62-yard kick return to the Nebraska 40. It was an immediate boost to get the Offense going. But after a disappointing 3 and Out, Coach D had a tough decision to make. He opted to line Dan Conroy (Rs. Jr. PK) up for a 52-yarder. Conroy either had the kick tipped or got under it a good bit as it barely reached the Goal Line. It was an interesting call considering the strength of the Spartans’ punting game to date, and the length of the kick for a guy (Conroy) who hasn’t tried one in 4-weeks.

Starting with good field position at their 35, Nebraska got a huge call on a 2nd and 8 when Johnny Adams was whistled for Pass Interference after grabbing a jersey just enough to produce the flag and move the chains. On the subsequent 3rd and 7, Adams stepped up and pushed Rex Burkhead (Jr. RB) out of bounds 2-yards short, forcing a Husker punt from mid-field. The Spartan Defense had settled things down a bit, but saw another player (Steve Gardiner (Rs.-Jr. LB)) walk off the field injured.

From their 10, MSU looked to have a big pass play on 2nd down to an open Dion Sims (Rs.-So. TE), but it slipped out off his fingers to force a 3rd down. Cousins wisely saw nothing on that snap, and had to throw away. Sims opportunity could’ve been a big momentum builder for a Offense that had suddenly gone flat. Instead, it was a second straight 3 and Out, forcing Mike Sadler (Rs.-Fr. P) to punt from near his Goal Line. Sadler wasn’t really rushed, but semi-shanked one off the side of his foot and out of bounds at the Nebraska 40.

On that 2nd and 10, Burkhead lined up in the Wildcat, but handed it off to Tim Marlowe (Jr. WR), which fooled the Spartans and brought Darqueze Dennard (So. CB) too far in. Dennard's tackling angle was compromised, and space was left open for Marlowe to get down to the MSU 1. After being stuffed one the first two downs, Nebraska was stoned again for a loss on 3rd down by a group that included Marcus Rush (Rs.-Fr. DE) and Johnathan Strayhorn (Rs.-Sr. DT). Nebraska had to settle for 3, to make it only 10-0. It was a valiant effort by the Spartan Dawgs to shut down the Huskers three times from the 1-yard line.

Starting from their own 20 to close out the 1st Quarter, and desperately needing Offensive progress and a rest for their Defense, the Spartans faced a 3rd and 8 with 41-seconds left. Though it was shortened to 3rd and 3 after the Huskers’ Cameron Meredith (Jr. DE) jumped Offsides, Cousins’ pass to Bell was short of the 1st down marker, and Sadler was again forced to punt. It was a poor play by MSU. Bell had to get past the 1st down marker before turning for the catch, no matter what.

The Offense was stuck in a haze after the interception, which seemed to take them by surprise. That play shaped the entire 1st period of play, if not entire Offensive effort for the day. After that INT, the Spartans struggled to match the intensity of the Blackshirts up front, and failed to make any effective adjustments as the Husker Defense strengthened throughout the day. For the 1st Quarter, Cousins was just 2 of 8, though not completely to blame for the poor conversion rate. The Spartans were 0 for 4 on 3rd downs, and never snapped out of it Offensively today.

After forcing a Nebraska punt at the start of the 2nd, the MSU looked to settle down for a minute, and looked to rebuild some Offensive rhythm. Starting from their own 33, MSU could only move it to their 47 before facing a 3rd and 10 when the noise of Memorial Stadium forced an MSU Time Out. Coming out of the break, Cousins had the time needed to find Keshawn Martin (Sr. WR) over the middle for the 1st, and down to the Nebraska 39. Yet, three snaps later, MSU faced another 3rd and 9. This time, Cousins just missed Martin cutting to the sideline, and MSU again had to punt from mid-field. That down should not be forgotten. Sadler continued his roughest game to date by overshooting his target, resulting in a Touchback.

Nebraska faced a subsequent 3rd and 7, and Martinez continued his “0-fer” the half passing (0-yards) as he bounced one that wasn’t close, to force another Husker punt. Martin brought back to the MSU 37, and it was again time the Offense put some points on the board. But after Cousins took a bad sack on 1st down and Baker made up enough on 2nd to put it into a 3rd and 8, Cousins couldn’t find Martin deep, and Sadler was back out again to punt.

Pinning Nebraska to their 17, the Huskers looked to take the game over during the final five-minutes of the Half. But Taylor Martinez forced up a horrible looking duck on 2nd down that Johnny Adams (Rs.-Jr. CB) tipped and pulled in for the INT. Adams was able to bring it back to the Husker 28, and the Spartans looked again to be in business.

Facing a 3rd and 3 from the 21, Cousins flipped one to his left for Le’Veon Bell that was barely missed for a sure INT-TD the other way, but converted by Bell to keep the drive going. If that one had landed in the hands of Nebraska’s Andrew Green (So. CB), he would’ve probably taken it 80-yards to put the Huskers up 17-0. The “game of inches” on that play leaned fortunately the Spartans' way.

Then facing a 3rd and Goal from the 11, MSU lined up in an “empty” set and Cousins looked to throw it perfectly in the hands of Nebraska’s Damion Stafford (Jr. S), thanks in huge part to a Husker hold of Martin that the Officials completely missed. Stafford dropped the ball, and Nebraska had again missed on a play that looked like 6-points the other way. Yet, had Pass Interference been called on Nebraska, the Spartans would’ve been looking at a 1st and Goal from punch in range, and likely soon a 10-7 score. Spartan Nation cannot overlook that early turning point. Instead, MSU sent Conroy out for the 28-yarder to make it 10-3.

On the subsequent kick, Kyler Elsworth (Rs.-So. LB) stripped Ameer Abdulah (Fr. RB) but the ball went out of bounds too quickly for MSU to snatch it back on what would’ve been a monster turnover later in the half in Husker territory. If that had been scooped up, it might have given MSU the energy boost they needed to take the edge. Nebraska struggled managing the clock from there, and could only move it to mid-field before running out the clock for the Half.

The 10-3 Halftime Nebraska lead wasn’t very pretty at all. The MSU Defense and Taylor Martinez (So. QB) combined to hold the Husker passing game to a pitiful 0 passing yards (1/6, INT). On the other side, the early INT rattled Cousins' unit heavily, who finished only 4/15 for 27 yards, and too often under heavy Husker pressure. 3rd downs weren’t much better (MSU: 3/10, NEB: 2/7), and Nebraska held the expected edge on the ground (101-57) since they had no air attack at all. Coming off his suspension, William Gholston (So. DE) stood out early by recording a career high 9-tackles half way through. Though the emotion swung the Huskers way following that INT, Gholston and the Spartan Dawgs kept MSU within one score to start the 2nd Half.

The first drive of the 3rd Quarter changed the entire game. Martinez was able to convert a seemingly simple, yet ultimately key 3rd and 5 through the air to get things going. The Huskers then took advantage of a somewhat iffy 15-yard Personal Foul on Darqueze Dennard (So. CB) to move it towards mid-field. Suddenly and surprisingly, the Huskers found some Offensive momentum. The Spartan Defense was starting to show signs of fatigue.

After a 3rd and 10 option-pitch to Rex Burkhead (Jr. RB) (that looked nearly to be an illegal forward pitch) was taken for 12 yards and the 1st down, Nebraska was into the MSU Red Zone. Martinez built on his new found passing confidence to find Brandon Kinnie (Sr. WR) to move the chains on a 3rd and 2 down to the MSU 9. The Huskers were making the plays on 3rd downs that would ultimately prove to be the difference.

Burkhead took the next hand off on 1st down to the 1, and on 2nd down he made it all the way to the Goal Line before coughing it up as he fell to the ground. It was without question the play of the day. The fumble was recover by MSU inside the 5, and looked to be a huge momentum swing for the Green. Yet, after initially being called a fumble recovery for MSU on the field, the replay confirmed that Burkhead had broken the plane of the End Zone before the fumble. The call was reversed, and ruled a TD to put Nebraska up 17-3. Like last week's reversal at the end of the Wisconsin game, this call also looked to be 100% correct.

The drive of the game was highlighted by four 3rd down conversions for Nebraska. No one saw that coming earlier in the day. That, combined with a play that initially looked like a point-saving turnover, served as a heavy blow to the Spartan D from which they could not recover today. It was hardly a drive that looked destined for 7 points at the start, let alone in such a dramatic fashion. But by stretching their lead to two scores and finally getting an edge on the Spartan D, the Huskers looked to regain the control they’d need to close the Spartans out at home.

With their backs against the wall on the ensuing drive, MSU started at their 27 and needed to display some Halftime adjustments. Facing a 3rd and 7 from the Husker 42, Nebraska’s Eric Martin (Jr. DE) got around Fou Fonoti (Jr. RT) and sacked Cousins at the 50. It was just another play in the Huskers' best Defensive effort of the year. Sadler had to punt, and this time had it go out of bounds at the Nebraska 11. The Husker Defense was playing downhill. It was hard to know whether the MSU Offense had made any adjustments at the Half the rest of the game because Cousins didn’t get the time needed up front to get their plays developed.

After burning nearly half the Quarter with their game changing opening drive, there was no question that the Huskers would rely on the Martinez-Burkhead combination for the rest of the day. Their mission was to burn the clock and finish griding down the Spartan Defense. They alone had kept MSU in it as long as possible, but couldn’t do it alone. Nebraska is too good a team to be beaten by only one of a team's three units (Offense-Defense-Special Teams). That’s a credit to the Husker Defense more than it is a knock on the Spartan Offense. They dictated what the MSU Offense could and couldn’t do.

Looking to run out the clock, Rex Burkhead ran it 9 straight times to start the new drive before a Holding call backed them up to the MSU 45. After a TV break for two more injured Spartans, the Defense looked for enough energy to make one last stand. On a 3rd and 11, after Burkhead had to come off the field injured, the ball was put into Martinez’s hands. On a wisely called split-screen pass against the Spartans’ soft zone, the Huskers’ QB found Kenny Bell (Rs.-Fr. WR) for 19-yards and the finishing type of 1st down needed to close out Spartans. Two snaps later, with his top asset back on the field, Martinez went to Burkhead on a wheel route for the score to essentially finish the Spartans all the way off, 24-3.

The Huskers held the ball for more than 11:00 of the 3rd and took the game over for good in that stretch. On their Offensive side, they took the slow building momentum of the Quarter’s first drive and built on it from there. On the Defensive side, they closed on Cousins too easily, often only rushing four from the front. They stopped the high powered MSU Offense from the point of attack, and completely frustrated the Spartans the entire 2nd Half. A game that looked up for grabs at the start of the 3rd was converted by Nebraska into a win by the end of the 45th minute. Credit Nebraska for beating the Spartans in the 3rd in a game they had to have for the Big Ten race. They beat the Spartans more today than the Spartans beat themselves. That was not the case against Notre Dame earlier this year, the only game MSU had lost all year.

The Spartans never quit, however. Down 24-3, the Offense found some room and moved it early in the 4th to the Nebraska 18 before a 4th and 9 pass to Martin was broken. There was no need for MSU to try for 3 points, being down 21. They had to have 7, three different times. Today, that wasn't going to happen against the momentum fueled Blackshirt Defense.

The Huskers clearly won the battle up front on a day that so many players seemed to come up limp throughout the game. It left many wondering whether the “student-athletes” weren’t quite loose because of the surprisingly early start (11:00 am). And MSU didn't help themselves by once again getting deep into the penalty column (9-90). Though they essentially matched the penalty numbers of Nebraska (9-53), the Spartan flags came at much worse times, and more than helped build Nebraska's momentum on the day. Nebraska also effectively took away the Spartan passing game, forced them out of rhythm, and kept them off balance after the early INT.

After the first drive of the 3rd Quarter, especially the final play of that drive that went from turnover to touchdown, the Spartans simply ran out of gas for October. In short, the Huskers made the key plays, got the key bounces, and built on a couple key calls to earn the 24-3 win they had to have to stay in the division race. Next week begins a new month, a more schedule friendly” month, and the Spartans’ final push towards the Big Ten Title Game in Indy. Despite the firm beating in Lincoln today, it's all still there to play for. That's the result for October that Spartan Nation was hoping for.

Today's Three Stars

1. William Gholston--Bounced back after the suspension to make an impact up front, all day, with career numbers to boot.

2. Marcus Rush--Consistently made plays and applied pressure, even though he's now a marked man. He's not a surprise an opposing team anymore.

3. Trenton Robinson--Senior Captain kept the Defense going as long as they could, on a day they had to quickly realize they would be heavily depended on.

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