Column: MSU, referees both at fault in loss to No. 21 Nebraska
Allow me to set the scene.
Junior cornerback Darqueze Dennard had just made a miraculous play to keep the ball out of the hands of Nebraska wideout Kenny Bell, forcing the No. 21 Cornhuskers to try a 37-yard field goal to send the game into overtime.
Spartan Stadium erupted as the ball fell to earth, but hushed just seconds later, as a yellow piece of laundry did too.
“Pass interference, No. 31, defense. 15-yard penalty, automatic first down.”
It only took the Huskers two more plays to find the endzone, and MSU (5-5 overall, 2-4 Big Ten) fell in the final seconds once again, 28-24.
Except this time, it wasn’t their fault.
In an instant, it was like everything that had transpired in the previous 59 minutes and 40 seconds never happened.
It didn’t matter that MSU — the Big Ten’s top rushing defense heading into the game — allowed Nebraska quarterback Taylor Martinez to run for 205 yards and two touchdowns, or that the Huskers rushed for a team total 348 yards.
It didn’t matter that a personal foul call on senior cornerback Johnny Adams negated MSU’s first defensive touchdown of the year, when Dennard returned a Martinez pick all the way to the house.
The memory of senior kicker Dan Conroy’s missing a 49-yard field goal attempt in the first quarter — his seventh miss of the season — quickly faded.
MSU’s eight other penalties — including five personal fouls — which cost the Spartans a net 85 yards were completely forgotten about, as were the times the Huskers got hosed by the refs themselves.
That pass interference call wasn’t the only time the Spartans felt jilted.
Redshirt freshman fullback Trevon Pendleton was called for a hit on a defenseless player while trying to block on a 40-yard scamper by junior running back Le’Veon Bell. Adams’ personal foul which erased six points was questionable as well. Sophomore safety Kurtis Drummond was called for a high-hit on Martinez that had defensive coordinator Pat Narduzzi scratching his head when asked about it in post-game.
“Go ask those guys,” he said, referring to the referees. “They might be in a trailer somewhere.”
Head coach Mark Dantonio declined to comment on that final pass interference call, but Narduzzi certainly didn’t abstain.
“Players play, coaches coach, officials try to officiate the best they can,” Narduzzi said.
The not-so-subtle implication in that sentence comes with a certain weight.
But the players and the coaches aren’t blameless in this loss. The Cornhuskers may have benefited from a slew of questionable calls against MSU.
Put it on the referees if it makes you feel better, but when it comes down to it, the Spartans allowed Nebraska to score 14 points in the game’s final 10 minutes. Nebraska walked away with a 28-24 victory.
MSU’s razor-thin Big Ten Championship hopes officially are dashed.
And if the Spartans don’t use this bye week to regroup and fight back in the final two games of the season, for the first time under Dantonio, they might find themselves ending their season in 12 games.
Jesse O’Brien is a State News football reporter. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.