No. 10 Michigan State had several chances to put this one away early. They had more chances to put it away late. After failing to put the nail in the coffin, No. 19 Nebraska nearly stole an upset victory in East Lansing.
With 5:47 to go in the fourth quarter, the Spartans sat comfortably on defense with a 27-9 lead. Quarterback Tommy Armstrong Jr. threw a pass and safety Kurtis Drummond jumped in the air to get his hands on it – he had a clear path to the end zone.
An interception returned for a touchdown would have all but ended Nebraska’s hopes for a victory. They had not been able to move the ball successfully against the Michigan State defense; until the ball bounced off the hands of Drummond and into the hands of wide receiver Jordan Westerkamp.
Westerkamp’s reception went for 41 yards to the Michigan State 22-yard line. Running back Ameer Abdullah finished off the drive with a one-yard touchdown run, making the score 27-16.
On the next possession, the Spartans were unable to run out the clock as Jeremy Langford was stopped short on a third-and-2. Mike Sadler’s punt was returned for a touchdown and the score then became 27-22 after a failed two-point conversion attempt.
Yet another attempt for the Spartans to put the game away failed. Kicker Michael Geiger, who was 2-2 on the night, had his 37-yard field goal attempt bounce off the upright in what seemed like slow motion. Nebraska had a chance to win the game with a touchdown on their final drive.
After the first half, it looked like the Spartans would roll to a convincing victory. In a role reversal of sorts, the Spartan offense that had been red hot all season let up three turnovers in the first half. Meanwhile, the defense stepped up and bailed out the struggling offense.
While big plays from then No. 3 Oregon ended up being the Achilles heel for Michigan State, there were even some questions to be asked after Wyoming was able to post 14 points, taking advantage of several defensive miscues last week. Safety R.J. Williamson being responsible for a few of those breakdowns. Williamson was replaced in the starting lineup this week by true freshman Montae Nicholson.
After the game, Nicholson said that he always prepares as if he will be the starter.
“It really didn’t change my mindset. I always prepare as if I’m starting,” Nicholson said.
The defense looked nearly perfect for the first three quarters of the game. Nebraska was held to only 85 yards of total offense and zero points in the first half. With 14 minutes to play in the game, Nebraska had only three points.
In the end, Michigan State was able to survive, as cornerback Trae Waynes made an interception, stopping Nebraska’s potential game winning drive.
After the game, head coach Mark Dantonio commented on his team’s narrow victory.
“It’s good to have a close game. I don’t like them,” Dantonio said.
Michigan State’s defense looked to stop the run, and they did. Defensive end Shilique Calhoun led the charge on the defensive line.
Following his big game, Calhoun talked about how the defense was able to handle the adversity of letting the team’s lead slip away.
“It wasn’t a shock. We knew that adversity was going to hit,” Calhoun said. “We do need to correct a lot of the mistakes that we had, but I feel like we stepped up to the task.”
After throwing an interception in his first drive of the game, quarterback Connor Cook finished the game 11-29 with 234 yards and a touchdown. The one touchdown came in the first quarter where he connected with receiver Tony Lippett for a 55-yard pass.
Cook commented on his team’s offensive and defensive performance after the game.
“Defensively we took like ten steps forward. Offense, we kind of took a couple steps back,” Cook said. “But that’s why there’s next week. The week to improve.”
Although the Spartans came through with a much-needed victory, the atmosphere in the media center after the game was the type one would expect after a win against a ranked opponent. What could have easily been a shutout, or a 27-3 victory, turned into a nearly heartbreaking loss for the Spartans.
MSU improved to 4-1 on the season and is 1-0 in the Big Ten. Their next test comes next Saturday at Purdue.
Bradley Allen is a multimedia journalist for Impact Sports
Photo: Faith Krogulecki/Impact Sports