Lincoln, NE — Football is a game of inches, and with every inch comes opportunities for scoring, opportunities for turnovers and opportunities for game-changing plays.
The No. 9 MSU football team had countless opportunities for key plays, but failed to capitalize on any of them, and as a result, No. 13 Nebraska handed the Spartans (6-2 overall, 3-1 Big Ten) their first loss in the Big Ten with a 24-3 score.
“We just had a few too many missed opportunities,” senior quarterback Kirk Cousins said. “When you go on the road in the Big Ten against a good team like Nebraska, you can’t miss out on opportunities that you have.
“We beat ourselves one too many times, and it made it hard to come out of the hole.”
The Cornhuskers (7-1, 3-1) not only kept MSU out of the end zone, but they also limited the Spartans to 187 total yards — less than half of their average this season. The last time MSU did not score a touchdown was against Nebraska in the 2003 Alamo Bowl.
Nebraska had MSU’s routes figured out and applied heavy pressure to Cousins as well as the wide receivers — consequently shutting down senior wide receiver B.J. Cunningham and snapping his 41-game streak of having at least one reception.
“They got good pressure on Kirk, (and) downfield, they (were) everywhere,” said senior wide receiver Keshawn Martin — who had five receptions for 58 yards.
“They (were) right there with us, and we did the plays we were supposed to run, but it just wasn’t there.”
On MSU’s first drive of the game, Cousins — who completed 11-for-27 passes for 86 yards — threw an interception to defensive back Lance Thorell, who returned the ball for 26 yards.
During that Nebraska possession, running back Rex Burkhead — who rushed 35 times for 130 yards and two touchdowns — rushed for the game’s first touchdown at 9:12 in the first quarter, and he finished the drive accounting for 18 of the team’s 25 yards.
While the Spartans went three-and-out on their next two drives — which lasted less than three minutes combined — the Cornhuskers stretched their lead to 10-0 with a field goal at the end of the first quarter. Despite scoring, MSU kept Nebraska from earning a touchdown after getting a first down on the one-yard line.
MSU got its only score from a drive that started when junior cornerback Johnny Adams intercepted quarterback Taylor Martinez’s pass and returned it for 25 yards. Although the Spartans were unable to get a touchdown — after being first-and-goal on the eight-yard line — junior kicker Dan Conroy’s field goal attempt was good, making the score 10-3.
At halftime, MSU had three penalties for 25 yards and had converted only three third downs of 10.
“We played OK in the first half — played pretty well in the first half,” head coach Mark Dantonio said. “But then in the second half, we had a combination of hurting ourselves and them making plays.”
Nebraska opened the half with the ball and an 80-yard, 14-play touchdown drive. Burkhead needed one yard for the touchdown, but fumbled the ball. When the play was reviewed, not only was it not a fumble, but the officials also ruled a touchdown at 9:32, and Nebraska’s lead grew to 17-3.
MSU began to somewhat efficiently move the ball up the field on the next possession, but the offense couldn’t make it into the red zone.
On a third-and-seven play for the Spartans, Cousins was sacked for a loss of seven yards, forcing them to punt and leaving the field without responding to Nebraska’s touchdown. They finished the game converting on only three-of-14 third down opportunities and had the ball for 3:37 in the whole third quarter.
“It was tough; they’ve got a good (defensive) line,” Martin said. “ On a couple of those third downs, Kirk got sacked, so there’s nothing we could really do about that. They had a good defensive plan, and they executed it well.”
Nebraska’s next possession sealed the Spartans’ fate when the team moved 89 yards up the field in 12 plays, and Martinez hit Burkhead with a 27-yard touchdown pass with 20 seconds remaining in the third to push the score up to 24-3.
“We (were) moving the ball,” said sophomore running back Le’Veon Bell — who led MSU with 12 rush attempts for 58 yards. “We’d get close, and we wouldn’t execute the way we would have liked. We’re a better football team than what we showed today.”
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