LINCOLN, NEB. – During the course of a football game, there are defining moments that make the difference between a win and a loss.
And when taking a look at the outcome, the direction the coin falls often is up to the human response when the time comes.
While many will cite junior punter Mike Sadler’s “Charlie Brown” fake field goal with the Spartans leading by six points in the fourth quarter as the turning point of Saturday’s game against Nebraska, the true defining moment of the game happened just four plays later via sophomore quarterback Connor Cook.
Setting up shop on Nebraska’s 27-yard line on 3rd and 13, Cook dropped back in pocket seeing vertical seams up the middle with the Huskers showing Cover 0 defense.
He patiently broke down the weakness in the defenders before seeing a beam of light in the direction of junior wide receiver Keith Mumphery. Cook then uncorked a rocket of a pass, not unlike many he’s thrown before, hitting Mumphery in stride for a 27-yard touchdown setting off a moment of elation on the sideline.
Take a moment to soak it in. Exhale.
Cook’s composure down the stretch on top of a five-turnover day for the defense allowed the No. 13 Spartans (9-1 overall, 6-0 Big Ten) to walk out of Memorial Stadium with a share of the Legends Division title in the program’s first-ever victory against Nebraska (7-3, 4-2).
“I just knew that we needed a touchdown to kind of seal the deal and get a bigger cushion for us as an offense and as a team,” Cook said. “I always have belief in myself, but my main goal is just that we need points. A field goal, a touchdown, whatever it is, we need it and I’m going to do whatever I possibly can to lead my team down.”
It’s not unheard of to drown in the sea of red, as several Spartan teams have before.
Even in a successful 2011 season led by the now-mythical former quarterback Kirk Cousins, the Spartans traveled to Nebraska’s Memorial Stadium and got their teeth kicked in during a 24-3 affair. It was a total and complete annihilation of arguably head coach Mark Dantonio’s best MSU team.
Yet, Cook and this year’s version of the Spartans proved Nebraska can be beaten and, in the process, that a trip to the Rose Bowl isn’t as unattainable as once imagined.
Week by week, the Spartans keep breaking down barriers they set for themselves with early season struggles against Western Michigan and South Florida. By now, it’s almost humorous to reflect on the stagnant offense of just two months ago.
Remember the “we want Terry” chants? Nobody’s chanting anymore. Remember hoping the defense would stay on the field because they’re the only ones scoring points? Those days are over.
Even as the box score shows five turnovers for the defense — two of which actually were forced by the Spartans — it was Cook and the offense who grew up, overcoming an early missed opportunity on an overthrow to junior wide receiver Tony Lippett to rally when it counted the most.
And for a team chasing a Big Ten championship and a potential BCS bowl game, that ultimately will be the difference.
“That’s the difference (between) being 7-6 or hopefully competing for the championship at the end of the year,” senior linebacker Max Bullough said.
It wasn’t perfect, nor was it a even close to a pretty win for either side of the ball — Dantonio and the players acknowledge that much is true. But by showing the genuine ability to string together big plays in defining moments, it’d be hard to believe the the wins won’t keep coming.
Dillon Davis is a State News football reporter. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.