Mel Tucker had to wait a long time for the Big Ten’s magic Nebraska formula to work, but he stuck it out. He simply waited until his team walked off the field with a 23-20 overtime victory that it never should have had.
Tucker, Michigan State’s head coach, had a rather placid night compared to Nebraska quarterback Adrian Martinez, who was nearly knocked out of the game on the first possession, when he was sandwiched by two Michigan State defenders — one of whom hit Martinez in the facemask with the crown of his helmet. Martinez lay on the field for several minutes, then made it to the sideline where trainers were examining his face and jaw. He missed a series, then returned and played a courageous game while his unsteady offensive line continued to put him in peril.
So while Martinez ran for his life two out every three times he dropped back to pass, and pulled off an amazing number of escape acts to keep his offense moving down the field, Tucker waited it out on the sideline. It was a tribute to Martinez that Nebraska trailed only 13-10 at halftime.
Then the Husker defense, possibly inspired by Martinez’s performance, rose to the occasion. The Blackshirts put together their best half of football in years, forcing five consecutive Michigan State three-and-outs. But Tucker knew he didn’t need much offense at all to win this game.
Tucker waited while Nebraska drove downfield on the first possession of the third quarter to kick a field goal and tie the game at 13.
He waited while the Husker defense did everything it could to win the game, short of getting a pick-six or a scoop-and-score.
He waited while Nebraska piled up a huge second-half advantage in yardage and time of possession. I thought I saw him yelling and fuming a few times, but mostly he waited.
Tucker waited nervously while Husker receivers ran open down the field, only to be ignored because their quarterback was too harassed to get them the ball. The Huskers missed two golden opportunities to take the lead as his defense sacked Martinez for the fifth and sixth times to abort two consecutive drives.
He even waited while Nebraska finally put together a beautiful 11-play, 80-yard touchdown drive that chewed five minutes off the clock and gave the Huskers a 20-13 advantage. An unranked Nebraska team was poised to beat a rated team on the road for the first time since 2006, the 28-27 win over Texas A&M in College Station.
He waited calmly while the Huskers tripped on the threshold of victory, failing to punch out a first down against his dead-tired Spartan defense with four minutes remaining, a first down that might have closed the deal.
Then Tucker performed his key strategic act of the game. He waited for Nebraska’s special teams to implode. He watched while Nebraska punter Daniel Cerni kicked the ball to the east side of the field as his teammates rushed to cover the returner on the opposite side, where Cerni was supposed to kick the ball. A surprised and almost completely uncovered Jayden Reed, who scored the Spartans’ first touchdown of the game on a flea-flicker pass, caught Cerni’s 34-yard punt at his own 38 and easily scored their second TD, running untouched to the Husker end zone to tie the game with 3:47 remaining in the fourth quarter. (Photo above.)
Cerni, who has been shaky as a punter this season, was in the game because his counterpart, William Przystup, a former Michigan State player, shanked a couple of dreadful punts of his own earlier in the game, including one that traveled only 7 yards.
To be fair, although Nebraska has been outperformed by every opponent this fall on special teams, the NU kicking game hasn’t been a complete catastrophe every time it steps on the field. Actually, disaster only strikes about one time out of every four the Huskers send out any of their kicking units. Saturday night, they did block a Michigan State field goal when the snap went awry. Cerni and Przystup have each made two or three of good punts through the first five games of the season, whereas Nebraska’s kickoff return squad is yet to return the ball past the 25-yard line. Placekicker Connor Culp, who had missed five field goal and two extra points, rebounded from a bad case of the yips to make all his kicks in East Lansing. Plainly stated, relying on the Husker kicking game is a lot like trying to eat lunch with a few broken molars. Sometimes, it’s not painful.
Remember Frost’s decision last winter not to reshuffle his staff and find a way to get a top-notch special teams coach? How’s that working out right about now?
So, knowing how undependable his kicking game is, should Frost have punted the ball with a seven-point lead on fourth-and-3 from his own 28 yard line with four minutes remaining? Absolutely. Why not trust his defense to do what it had been doing the entire second half?
But Cerni and the Husker punt team denied the Blackshirts a chance to bring home the win. And Tucker, who watched his defense sack Martinez yet again, for a seventh time, knew his waiting game was about to pay off.
He waited until overtime, where he two years ago he beat Frost in Boulder as Colorado’s coach. And that’s when he knew the game was in the bag.
He waited as a beat-up Martinez failed to see a wide-open Levi Falck in the end zone on the first play of the extra period. Turns out that when you’re constantly under pressure, your field vision is compromised.
Tucker watched as Martinez finally cracked, and threw a third-down interception. Maybe he figured it was just a matter of time.
Michigan State’s one and only productive offensive play after halftime set the Spartans up first and goal inside the five. At that point, the game-winning field goal was academic.
It’s only Tucker’s second year in the league, but he knows the formula. Word gets around fast. All you have to do is play conservative and wait for the Huskers to muck things up. Works like a charm.
There are questions after a gut-wrenching loss like this. Why didn’t Frost and running back coach Ryan Held put arguably their best power running back, Markese Stepp, in the game in the fourth quarter to work on the gassed Spartan defense? Why give him only one carry the entire game? Instead, they cast their lot with Rahmir Johnson, who is more of a speed back. Johnson showed some improvement, and had a decent night, rushing for 76 yards on 19 carries. He couldn’t close the deal against the Spartans, but then again, he rarely had much room to run.
The Huskers lost their fifth consecutive overtime decision. They haven’t scored a touchdown in overtime since Tommy Armstrong hit Kenny Bell for the game-winning score at Iowa City in Bo Pelini’s last game as Nebraska head coach.
A team in Nebraska’s position, having worn down the Spartan defense and taken the lead late in the game, should be able to lean on its offensive line, but leaning on the Husker o-line this year is treacherous at best. It has enough talent to be an asset, although apparently not as much as I thought it had back in August. It certainly lacks mental toughness and cohesion and it lacks an understanding of how to finish a game, and that’s a shame for a school that has such a proud heritage of producing Outland and Lombardi Award winners. The “they’re still young” excuse doesn’t work anymore for this bunch, all of whom (except Turner Corcoran) have been in coach Greg Austin’s system for at least three years. Make it three-and-a-half years, because this was Game 5. Consequently, Austin’s tenure in Lincoln is hanging by a thread. A team that had a breakthrough win in its hands found yet another agonizing way to fritter it away. And Nebraska’s pathway to six wins and a bowl game just got a lot narrower.