One step closer to Indy
MSU tops Nebraska, 41-28
LINCOLN, NEB. – All season long, defense has been a strength for the No. 14 MSU football team, able to overcome even the most egregious of offensive shortcomings.
On Saturday, the defense played an integral part once more by creating five total turnovers and leading the way as the Spartans clinched a share of the Legends Division title in the program’s first ever victory against Nebraska.
By defeating Nebraska (7-3 overall, 4-2 Big Ten) 41-28, the Spartans (9-1, 6-0) put an exclamation point on the season, now able to control their own destiny en route to the Big Ten Championship Game with just two games to play. And while the win doesn’t exactly clinch a berth to the conference title game, the Spartans have the best remaining chances to get there if they’re able to defeat either Northwestern or Minnesota to close out the regular season.
And although the defense was somewhat uncharacteristic in allowing 182 rushing yards on the day, senior linebacker Max Bullough said the Spartans keep finding ways to win in critical moments.
“We can sit here and talk about how they gashed us in the run game or how they had a few plays, but we won,” Bullough said. “That’s the difference between being 7-6 or whatever it is and hopefully competing for a championship at the end of the year.”
In the first half alone, the Spartans had four turnovers, including two forced fumble recoveries that set up touchdown scoring drives against the Huskers.
Leading 3-0 but forced to punt in the first quarter, sophomore long snapper Taybor Pepper recovered a fumble by Nebraska return man Jordan Westerkamp. Two plays later, freshman wide receiver R.J. Shelton took a misdirection flip by sophomore quarterback Connor Cook to the left side of the end zone for an MSU touchdown.
On the next possession, Nebraska answered back, orchestrating a five-play, 75-yard scoring drive capped by a 32-yard touchdown reception by wide receiver Sam Burtch on a pass by quarterback Tommy Armstrong Jr.
Taking over at the end of the first and carrying over to the second quarter, the Spartans nickel-and-dimed the ball down the field to set up deep in the red zone with a chance to score.
However, MSU would be forced to settle for a field goal after an errant trick play pass by junior wide receiver Tony Lippett was nowhere close to junior tight end Andrew Gleichert.
Sophomore defensive end Shilique Calhoun forced a fumble on Armstrong late in the first half, putting Langford in position for a 6-yard touchdown run to go into halftime leading 20-7.
Calhoun said the Spartan defense has been evolving as the year has moved along, which was evident in the way MSU was able to seize opportunities from Nebraska’s mistakes.
“Coach D speaks on it a lot, we’ve got to take advantage of our opportunities,” Calhoun said. “We didn’t force many turnovers but we were able to capitalize from the turnovers and get the ball back and that’s something if we can get the ball back. Even though we didn’t technically force them, we kind of disrupted their offense a little bit.”
After running back Ameer Abdullah led the way with 87 rushing yards in the first half against the Spartans, it was backup tailback Imani Cross’ turn in the second half, taking a 51-yard carry on Nebraska’s first offensive drive of the half to the house.
But MSU’s defense bounced back with 5:30 remaining in the third quarter, stripping the ball from Armstrong on Nebraska’s 3-yard line.
One play later, Langford carried the ball into the end zone to make it a 27-14 MSU lead.
Langford completed his fifth consecutive 100-yard rushing game against the Huskers, taking 32 carries for 151 yards and three touchdowns in the winning effort. In context, Langford now is 74 yards short of a 1,000 yard year in his first season as MSU’s starting running back.
Getting the ball back on the next drive, the Huskers leaned on the running prowess of Abdullah and Armstrong to set up the pass later in the drive. That pass came on 3rd down and 9 from MSU’s 38-yard line, when Armstrong lobbed a pass to wide receiver Kenny Bell, who made the difficult reception over junior safety Kurtis Drummond.
Drummond praised Bell for the reception but said he personally could have made a play to disrupt the action.
“It was a great ball but I feel like I could have made a better play on the ball,” Drummond said. “I mean, it’s something I’m going to learn from.”
With the game tightening late, it appeared the Spartans would be forced to settle for a field goal to cling to a 10-point lead in the fourth quarter. Instead, head coach Mark Dantonio called a field goal fake, sending junior Mike Sadler up the middle with Geiger as his blocker to pick up a first down.
The play’s name? “Charlie Brown,” Sadler said after the game.
“It was a rush,” Sadler said, noting the play was supposed to go outside instead of up the middle. “Fortunately, we kind of caught them off guard a little bit and I’m glad we didn’t have to run that against our defense. It was just a rush. Apparently I got picked up and I don’t remember any of it.”
It’s the second special teams fake Dantonio has called this season with the other coming in a win against Iowa with Sadler’s famed “Hey Diddle Diddle” play.
“At some point, your head football coach has to take some chances,” Dantonio said. “I told our football team at halftime, ‘hey, we are going to roll the dice.’ I already made up my mind on that series, if we got within field goal range, we were running the field goal fake ‘Charlie Brown.’”
Just four plays later, Cook hit junior wide receiver Keith Mumphery in stride in the end zone for an MSU touchdown to extend the lead to 34-21.
Cook finished the game passing 15-for-31 from the field for 193 yards and the one touchdown to Mumphery to pad the lead near the finish line.
And as he did two weeks ago against Michigan, Langford took a late handoff for a touchdown with the clock winding down in the fourth quarter to ensure a Spartan victory at Memorial Stadium.
Speaking with a smile at the podium, his teeth momentarily stained from a gulp of green Gatorade, Dantonio said the Spartans grinded out a major win that will have implications
“Our defense – a little uncharacteristic, they were able to run the ball a little bit more efficiently that we thought, but credit Nebraska on that,” Dantonio said. “When you come up with five turnovers, you did something right, too. Just a team win, program win and we are excited about being 9-1.
“Everything is in our corner.”