Michigan State faced its first real tough test of the season Saturday night. After rolling through its first three games of the season only trailing once for about seven minutes of the second quarter at Miami, they found themselves stuck in a physical, gruesome battle.
Midway through the fourth quarter, they looked to be in trouble. MSU’s offense had completely fallen apart. The offensive line was getting pushed around like punching bags, none of the receivers could gain any separation and the running backs had no holes to run through.
14 total yards and zero first downs. They could not buy a first down in the second half if given the opportunity.
We have seen this script play out plenty of times in recent Michigan State history. Not so much in 2020 where there were many uncompetitive losses, but as recent as Mark Dantonio’s final season in 2019.
Week three versus Arizona State. MSU took a 7-3 lead on an Elijah Collins touchdown run with 8:37 to go, but then gave up a go-ahead one yard touchdown with 50 seconds to play. The Spartans marched down the field lead by quarterback Brian Lewerke only to lose on a missed field goal try from 47-yards out as time expired from Matt Coghlin.
Week nine versus Illinois. The Spartans led by a touchdown with five minutes to play and possession of the ball. Lewerke threw a 76-yard pick-six nearly tying the game at 31, but a missed PAT kept Michigan State with a 31-30 lead. Coghlin later connected on a field goal extending the MSU lead to four with three minutes to play, but Illinois engineered down the field with a game-winning touchdown with :05 on the clock.
Those were good teams, not great teams. Those were teams that found ways to lose instead of finding ways to gut out a win. MSU under Head Coach Mel Tucker flipped the script on Saturday night. They found a way to win, even when it felt like they should not have.
With seven and a half minutes to play, Nebraska took a 20-13 lead on a rushing touchdown from quarterback Adrian Martinez. It felt like a death sentence in the woodshed. Even with a sudden sense of urgency and the way MSU’s offense was playing, it looked like the Spartans were on their way to their first loss of 2021 and a probable fall outside the AP Top 25.
The offense did not step up.
They were given two more possessions in the fourth quarter and both ended the same way: a three-and-out. The offense, which had been so good through the first three games of the season, was for the first time unable to move the ball.
So with just shy of four minutes to play and the MSU defense getting a stop to force a punt, it still felt like a win would be impossible to pull off for the green and white. That was until special teams coordinator Ross Els sent two of Michigan State’s best playmakers instead of one back to field the punt: redshirt juniors Jalen Nailor and Jayden Reed.
Nailor stood on the right side of the field while his wide receiver partner stood on the left side of the field. Nebraska's punt went up in the air to the left side toward Reed. But, instead of following the direction of the ball, everyone else on the field went to the right side of the field where Nailor pretended to track the ball in the air. Reed caught the ball with lots of daylight and blockers ahead of him and sprinted down the sideline for a touchdown.
Bang. Tie game.
Then in overtime, the Spartans needed another big play. MSU won the coin toss and elected to defend first. It was third and three and all Michigan State needed was a stop to force a field goal try from a suspect Nebraska kicking game, but they got something better.
Martinez took the snap and quickly fired a pass to his right with a Husker receiver running a slant route. Junior cornerback Chester Kimbrough, a transfer from Florida, recognized the play, jumped the route, and dashed with the ball the other direction.
At the time, it looked like Kimbrough had a chance of going the distance, but he was run down, setting up MSU nicely for a chance to somehow, someway win the game. All Michigan State needed was to score to win.
Junior running back Kenneth Walker III took the first snap of overtime out of the typically unsuccessful wildcat, but carried the ball all the way down to Nebraska's two yard line. Two plays later, Coghlin booted a 21-yard field goal, giving the Spartans the victory and sending the fans home into the cool East Lansing night with joyful smiles on their faces.
Last week it was solidified that MSU’s players were buying into Mel Tucker’s system and culture. They have won games already holding onto leads. Saturday, with their backs against the wall, the Spartans checked another box on the checklist. They won a game in which they were trailing late. They won a game that probably should have been lost.
But, they made two big plays down the stretch that set up Michigan State's victory. They capitalized on mistakes by the opposition. They made winning plays, ones that have not been made in years.
Great teams seem to always find ways to grind out wins, even when not playing their best. Somehow, someway, they get it done.
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Michigan State is not yet a great team, but I do think they are starting to head in that direction.
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