Michigan State improves to 4-0 after overtime thriller against Nebraska


MSU defensive end Jeff Pietrowski celebrates with his teammates after MSU’s 23-20 overtime win over Nebraska on Sept. 25, 2021/ Photo Credit: MSU Athletic Communications

Aidan Champion, Football Beat Reporter

EAST LANSING — No. 20 Michigan State defended its home turf in its second Big Ten matchup of the season, conquering Nebraska 23-20 in overtime on Saturday night.

In a game of ups and downs for MSU, the Spartans did what they had to do, and that was to simply find a way to win the game. The mission would be anything but simple, though.

MSU’s first quarter was much similar to last week’s, as neither offense could get much going. Reigning Big Ten Co-Offensive Player of the Week quarterback Payton Thorne threw a deep pass that was picked off by Husker safety Deontai Williams on just the fourth play of the game.

Just after giving away their early momentum, the Spartans responded when defensive end Drew Beesley sacked Nebraska QB Adrian Martinez for a 5-yard loss on the Huskers’ first play of their drive.

Martinez was injured on the drive and would be replaced by freshman QB Logan Smothers on the next Husker possession.

He led a promising marching drive for Nebraska’s offense, but a false start called against the Huskers would lead to a sequence of stoppages by the Spartan defense.

Nebraska would then force a Spartan three-and-out. MSU held strong, though, as junior linebacker Quavaris Crouch sacked Martinez for a 4-yard loss, forcing the Huskers to punt to end the quarter.

MSU linebacker Quavaris Crouch (6) celebrates with defensive end Jeff Pietrowski (6) after making a tackle in the Spartans’ 23-20 overtime win over Nebraska on Sept. 25, 2021/ Photo Credit: MSU Athletic Communications

The second quarter contained much more excitement for both teams, as bigger plays were made and points started being added to the scoreboard. 

On just the third play of the quarter, the Spartan offense switched things up with a flea flicker that allowed Thorne to find redshirt junior wide receiver Jayden Reed for a 35-yard TD reception. 

The Huskers responded quickly with a huge 45-yard rush for Martinez that downed the Nebraska offense at the MSU 9-yard line. Beesley was injured on the play and left the game. The Spartans were resilient, though, holding the Huskers to a 28-yard field goal.

The score was 7-3 in MSU’s favor with 11:14 to go in the half. 

Reed would then take matters into his own hands right away, returning the kickoff for 41 yards.

The momentum was carried over with a 35-yard reception from redshirt sophomore wide receiver Tre Mosley. 

Running back Kenneth Walker III then proceeded to run for three-straight gains, but after a sack by Husker outside linebacker Garrett Nelson, the Spartans ultimately settled for a made 26-yard field goal by kicker Matt Coghlin.

The Huskers retaliated with a nine-play drive that was capped off with a 12-yard TD rush for Martinez. 

Even then, the Spartans’ determination was not altered, as Thorne led a march down the field that included an aggressive 34-yard reception by tight end Connor Heyward. Once again, MSU was held to a field goal by the Husker offense, which put the Spartans back on top by three points.

MSU quarterback Payton Thorne quietly kneels before the Spartans’ take on No. 24 Miami on Sept. 18, 2021/ Photo Credit: MSU Athletic Communications

Nebraska’s next play ended with a short, 7-yard punt that set MSU up for very ideal field positioning in the final seconds of the half. Unfortunately for the Spartans, Coghlin’s kick to close the quarter was blocked by Husker cornerback Cam Taylor-Britt.

MSU went into intermission with a 13-10 lead.

Unlike the second quarter, the third quarter featured very little offensive exhilaration, as only three points were scored. 

A 14-play drive by the Huskers to open the half didn’t exactly go their way after having to settle for a 28-yard field goal that merely tied the contest. Both defenses stubbornly held their opponent scoreless for the remainder of the quarter.

The final quarter opened up in promising fashion for the Spartans when defensive end Jacub Panasiuk forced a sack-fumble that was recovered by redshirt sophomore defensive end Jeff Pietrowski on just the second play of the quarter. 

The next Nebraska possession would put the Huskers ahead for the first and only time in the contest, as Martinez once again rushed for a TD, concluding a drive that lasted just over five minutes. 

MSU’s offense couldn’t seem to get anything going, and it looked like Nebraska’s momentum from taking a late lead was bound to crush all hopes of the Spartans extending their winning streak. 

The MSU defense was finally able to contain Nebraska after forcing a punt late in the fourth, and it would turn out to be the ultimate game-changer. In an orchestrated punt return where wide receiver Jalen Nailor served as a decoy, Reed returned the ball and went on to score a 62-yard TD. 

MSU wide receiver Jayden Reed breaks a tackle in the Spartans’ 23-20 overtime win over Nebraska on Sept. 25, 2021/ Photo Credit: MSU Athletic Communications

“It was something we’ve been working on for about a few weeks now,” Reed said. “I give credit to coach Els and the rest of the special teams unit for opening that play up for me and being able to get in the end zone.”

Coghlin made the game-tying extra point, and the game would then go to overtime.

While a great portion of the game did not go in MSU’s favor, it seemed as though everything went right for coach Mel Tucker’s team when it needed to most.

Just three plays into overtime, Martinez was picked off by Spartan cornerback Chester Kimbrough, who exploded for a 62-yard run all the way to the Husker 25-yard line. 

The turnover was followed up with a 23-yard run up the middle by Walker, who took the ball out of a wildcat formation. After two more rushes from Walker, the kicking team took the field, and Coghlin drilled the 21-yard field goal to win the game.

The Spartans will look to extend their record to 5-0 when they host Western Kentucky next week.