Michigan State struggled to run when they wanted to, did not make adjustments soon enough, and ended up with their low output of the season so far. It did not take long to see that MSU could not run right at Nebraska. The Huskers won the line of scrimmage more often, and held MSU to only 2.4 yards per carry, 71 total for the game. Jay Johnson and company did not do enough to adjust to their struggles at the point of attack.
MSU also didn’t look good in the red zone. Twice in the 2nd Quarter the Offense could not convert. MSU forced the run and got stopped the first time, then stopped themselves with an iffy Wildcat shuffle the second. One drive can go from looking like a sure Touchdown to settling for a Field Goal without doing much harm, but if you have two or more of those, watch out for trouble late. Those two stall outs and the failed Field Goal try at the end of the 1st Half nearly buried MSU for good.
Nebraska had beef and ability up front. Damion Daniels (#93) especially gave the Spartans issues. That was evident early, and so was the Spartans approach, which did not help Payton Thorne find a good rhythm. Thorne should learn to slide more after taking a few big hits to the head tonight, but he needs more flexibility from his coaching staff to such a sputter from his Offense. Better opponents are ahead on the schedule, they will copy a lot of what Nebraska did well tonight, so it will be squarely on Mel Tucker and Johnson to make moves a lot sooner than they did tonight.
MSU’s inability to run the ball became easy to recognize before Tucker came to town. This is not a new look, it’s more like the norm of the past five years. Tucker’s staff has to find a better way to handle it so it doesn’t completely Offense stall out again like it did tonight. When that happens, in applies immediate stress the other two phases of your team. That’s a pattern that better left in the past.
Nebraska did a pretty good job making plays early. Whether it was Quarterback Adrian Martinez somehow avoiding a sack to complete a pass or the Huskers shifting into traditional option plays that could not be stopped, Nebraska did enough to tie MSU 10-10 at the Half. They did enough on the night to give Nebraska a real shot at a major road victory. The Spartan Defense held some of their biggest cards until late, and did enough to give the Spartan Special Teams a chance to find some magic.
Before the big plays late, the Defense started wearing out. They did a good job of pressuring Martinez most of the night, but he led Nebraska to 440 yards of Offense spread widely across the roster. The Huskers 3rd Down momentum (Nebraska converted 7 for 19 on the day) grew impressively. By the latter point of the 3rd Quarter, Nebraska had converted half of their fourteen-3rd Down snaps. Martinez was the difference, but the Spartan helped complete the comeback.
Chester Kimbrough’s Overtime interception almost became a walk off shot. The Junior from New Orleans saw daylight after securing the pick and nearly made a house call to end the game right then. At the end of the day, when the Spartan Defense needed plays most, they stopped a strong Husker attack. MSU held Nebraska to 41-yards in their final four drives. That’s something this unit can build on as they sharpen up for October.
Special Teams was the difference tonight. Neither team was perfect, Nebraska made the bigger mistakes, and MSU made the big plays in the end. It’s easy to point to the play of the day: Jayden Reed’s 62-yard Punt return for Touchdown with 3:47 to go in the 4th, with the PAT that tied the game at 20. But how did that happen?
It looked like Nebraska’s second Punter, Daniel Cemi, kicked the ball in the wrong direction, sending their kick coverage plans into chaos. It was not their first Punt confusion of the day. Reed made them pay for it as he saw daylight, stayed patient, then hit the gas when the time was right and sent The Woodshed into pandemonium. How big are Special Teams mistakes in Big Ten games? Scott Frost will be asked about Nebraska’s mistakes in this game for many years to come.
The Spartans Punt game keeps gaining ground. Bryce Baringer downed more kicks inside the 11, but frankly had too many opportunities for any Spartans’ liking. Matt Coghlin was also too busy. A bad snap threw off his Field Goal try at the Half, but MSU executed to close out the comeback win when it mattered most. There is real value in a veteran Michigan State Place Kicker, and Matt Coghlin has earned his value in the long line of MSU clutch kicking currency.
Scott Frost didn’t have a choice, he had to adjust. Martinez got knocked down and out early, Nebraska had to scramble, and they evolved in a hurry. As Nebraska ran some traditional looking option, MSU’s Defense went on its heels. There may be no tougher in-game adjustment than when an opponent starts running the option. Ask Ohio State about the 2015 game against MSU, for example. Frost’s early adjustments opened things up for the Nebraska Offense to move the ball.
Mel Tucker and staff were too slow to adjust on Offense tonight. They tried to force the run for too long, had nothing much to show for it, and did shift to another idea. It seemed MSU might try going “pass to run,” maybe some traditional option, or feature an entirely different look. They did little before the Half. As you know, they didn’t get the ball much in the final 30-minutes. Time of possession doesn’t matter much unless you win, but Nebraska nearly rode almost 15-minutes more than MSU to the win column tonight.
Nebraska’s ball control made Michigan State’s slow response even worse. MSU didn’t get much of a shot to adjust in the 2nd Half. Tucker and staff will have to react quicker against better teams as the season moves on. They struggled with that a few times last year too. The Rutgers game initially comes to mind. This should not be an ongoing problem from here. Tucker’s staff should take that big lesson from tonight and apply it as soon as is needed again.
Pre-season rankings, coaching change fantasies, and now September transfer portal action? One of those is a necessary evil, I guess we can all admit, but the other two are not welcome in a season’s first month. They are both now trending, they show no sign of slowing down in the future, and each will only pile on the problems rapidly growing around College Football. The sport needs to do better.
The last thing College Football needs right now is another developing crisis to manage. In case you forgot, there is really isn’t anyone around to manage it.