Lots of excitement was felt among Michigan State fans leading up to Saturday night’s kickoff. They had just gone on the road and upset No. 24 Miami to move to 3-0 on the season. “The Woodshed'' was going to be striped in green and white with what was expected to be a sold-out crowd. Nebraska was in town, a fanbase that always travels well and has proved to be a tough out in 2021.
But there were also heavy hearts leading up to the game. Heavy hearts five years later after the tragic deaths of former Michigan State punter Mike Sadler and former Nebraska punter Sam Foltz in a car accident.
So, it was only fitting that on the night they were honored before the game that Michigan State’s special teams literally kicked its way to a 23-20 overtime victory.
Michigan State Head Coach Mel Tucker has always emphasized since coming to East Lansing the importance of domination on offense, defense and special teams. Offense and defense usually seem to get the attention for having the most impact on games, but it was the special teams led by coordinator Ross Els who stole the show with the offense sputtering in the second half.
It started in the first quarter though, first with the punting game. MSU’s drive stalled on its 27-yard line in its first of six three-and-outs of the game. Senior punter Bryce Baringer, who had a 65-yard punt last week, unleashed another absolute bomb of 67 yards, pinning Nebraska at its own six-yard line. That led to Nebraska punting the ball right back to the Spartans, giving them good field position near midfield, and eventually leading to Michigan State’s first touchdown of the game.
Baringer finished the game with six punts with an average of 58.8 yards per punt.
Then in the second quarter following a Nebraska field goal that cut the Spartans’ lead to 7-3, redshirt junior wide receiver Jayden Reed, who scored the only offensive touchdown for MSU, returned the kickoff 41 yards to Michigan State’s 43. Yet again with good field position, the Spartans capitalized on that drive with a 26-yard field goal from graduate kicker Matt Coghlin.
“We knew that our return game was on the verge of exploding,” Tucker said after the game. “We popped a couple kickoff returns. Coach Ells made a really good call on that last punt return.”
Perhaps the biggest play of the game, besides the game winner, came in the fourth quarter and was one made by the special teams.
Down seven with less than four minutes to play, an exhausted Michigan State defense that kept going on and off the field as a victim of the Spartans’ laughable second half offensive performance, got another stop. MSU’s offense was given a chance to tie or take the lead, despite zero first downs in the entire half.
Needing a play anywhere it could get it, the Spartan offense did not even have to touch the ball in order to tie the game up. Nebraska’s punting unit, which was abysmal all game long, fell for a trick out of Els’ bag, which Reed said they had been practicing in the past few weeks.
Instead of sending the usual one man back to receive the punt, Michigan State sent two players back: redshirt junior wide receiver Jalen Nailor and Reed. The punt by Nebraska’s Daniel Cerni, who split duties with his fellow punter and former Spartan William Przystup, went left toward where Reed was stationed. But everyone else on the field went to the right side of the field where Nailor stood and waved his hands as a decoy. By the time Reed had caught the ball and started down the sideline, it was too late.
Reed said it only took two seconds after the ball had been punted for him to realize it was going to be a touchdown. “I see the wave of guys in white and red go that way and I was like ‘that’s six.’”
Redshirt sophomore quarterback Payton Thorne, who after the game took responsibility for Michigan State's offensive woes, said he too was fooled by the play. “That was absolutely insane and just an amazing feeling ... Credit to the whole special teams unit and credit to this guy for making a play and going and scoring,” Thorne said.
With the game headed to overtime knotted at 20, and Nebraska starting with the ball, the Spartans’ opportunistic defense got a takeaway on a third down interception by junior cornerback Chester Kimbrough. All Michigan State needed was to score on offense to win the game.
Junior running back Kenneth Walker III, who was held in check most of the night by Nebraska’s stingy front seven, set MSU up perfectly on the first play with a run down to the one-yard line. Two plays later, Coghlin came on the field and chipped a 21-yard field goal pushing Michigan State to the overtime victory and capping off a perfect kicking night, aside from a blocked kick at the end of the first half.
“Cogs (Coghlin) can do it for us big,” Tucker said. “He’s a vet. Veteran players have been there and done that. He’s always very component. He does a good job in practice.”
All of it from Coghlin to Baringer to Reed played just right in the victory for Michigan State. It was not perfect on all three phases of the game, but is never going to be that way all the time. Good times find ways to win, even when they maybe should not have deserved it.
There was not a better night than tonight for MSU's special teams to play like they did.
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