LINCOLN — Proof of life. A sliver of hope. A reason for joy.
When Nebraska was finally certain it had beaten No. 6 Michigan State 39-38 — when referees were sure every last second had ticked off the clock and Memorial Stadium erupted in a celebratory exhale — the Huskers tore from the bench in their own unrestrained delirium. Leaps of and laughs for joy.
Quarterback Tommy Armstrong made the rounds through players over to a fence lined with fans. Coaches locked in awkward, fierce-looking handshakes and back pats. NU administrators pumped fists, growling “Yes!”
Coach Mike Riley’s tenure — not even a season old — had reached an early alert. The state simmered in the wake of close, frustrating losses. Riley defended his vision. Several of his bosses did, too. A mood lingered in the air.
But Saturday night? Thumbs up. Hugs for everyone.
“It’s a helluva feeling,” defensive tackle Greg McMullen said.
“The kids earned this win tonight,” Riley said.
“Words can’t describe how I’m feeling right now,” said wide receiver Brandon Reilly, who caught the game-winning touchdown pass.
Nebraska won with a 19-point fourth-quarter to remember and a 91-yard, 38-second drive for Armstrong’s scrapbook, a win as dramatic and improbable as some of the losses this year.
With 17 seconds left in the game, NU scored the controversial winning touchdown — a 30-yard catch in which Reilly was pushed out of bounds before returning to the field of play — and then had to hold on as MSU stud quarterback Connor Cook tried to get the previously undefeated Spartans in field position for a game-winning field goal. On the game’s final play, in Nebraska territory, Cook held on to the ball too long, threw it away too late, and the ball landed out of bounds as the clock hit zero.
“I’d be lying if I said I didn’t think there’d be a second left,” defensive coordinator Mark Banker said. “I thought there was.”
“I thought maybe there was because everyone was stopping,” Michigan State coach Mark Dantonio said.
“I wasn’t sure,” Riley said.
But the clock had run out. No replay of the 2009 Big 12 championship on this night. A second was not restored. Nebraska had escaped, beating its highest-ranked foe since 2010 against Missouri.
“Yeah,” offensive coordinator Danny Langsdorf said, after a pause and a thoughtful swig of water. “This was big.”
Especially as Nebraska (4-6 overall, 2-4 in the Big Ten) came off an ugly loss at Purdue. The team had a chance to come off the rails, Riley said, but it didn’t.
Langsdorf lauded NU’s Monday practice as crisp and impressive. Armstrong, who threw for 320 yards, said he wanted Michigan State to be undefeated, and the Spartans were.
“I actually wanted those guys to be 8-0 coming into this game, just to prove to the world that this team is better than our record seems,” Armstrong said.
In front of 90,094 fans and several major recruiting targets, Nebraska did that.
The Huskers jumped out to a 10-0 lead behind a surprisingly good running game — Imani Cross finished the night with 98 yards — and Armstrong’s 38-yard touchdown to Jordan Westerkamp.
Michigan State (8-1, 4-1) sloughed off a slow start and took a 17-13 lead into halftime. Cook and his prodigious, glue-handed receivers — Aaron Burbridge and Macgarrett Kings, especially — got hot, carving up Nebraska’s buttery secondary. On four consecutive, gorgeous drives spanning the second, third and fourth quarters, MSU scored touchdowns. The last of those, a 16-play, 75-yard soul-sucker, took nearly nine minutes and left Nebraska with a 38-26 deficit and just 4:10 remaining.
The Huskers had moved up and down the field on the Spartans much of the night, hurting themselves with two Armstrong interceptions deep in MSU territory and curious play calling. Still, NU has become seasoned veterans, in the last several years, at these long-odds comebacks. Armstrong has led a few of his own and nearly clipped MSU last season with a late surge.
“Tommy’s just that kind of guy that’s always calm, relaxed,” fullback Andy Janovich said.
“He’s a battler,” Riley said.
“When you got Tommy at quarterback,” safety Nate Gerry said, “you just got to believe.”
Armstrong engineered the first touchdown drive — 10 plays, 53 yards — finishing it himself with a 1-yard bootleg touchdown. NU trailed 38-33 and just 1:47 remained. Riley said he debated whether to kick the ball off normally or try an onside. He opted for the onside, which Michigan State recovered.
The Spartans could not get a first down and didn’t particularly try on third-and-8, opting not to throw the ball. Nebraska snuffed out an end around, forcing a punt. Michigan State stuck NU at its own 9 with 55 seconds.
Armstrong responded by hitting Westerkamp — his best friend — for 28 and 33 yards, right over the middle, two plays in a row.
“You need something to get the momentum going,” Riley said. “And you know what that play did is it puts the other team on their heels.”
After Michigan State cornerback Arjen Colquhon dropped an interception in the end zone on NU’s third play of the drive, Riley dialed up “four verticals” — just four go routes to the end zone. Reilly thought he might get the ball. He did.
Reilly clearly ran out of bounds. Coach Riley told reporters he thought his receiver would be ruled out of bounds by officials. But Reilly came back in bounds, caught the touchdown, and officials ruled he’d been forced out of bounds by MSU corner Jermaine Edmondson. Thus, the score counted.
“We were actually surprised when they signaled touchdown,” Riley said.
“Everybody saw the replay,” Dantonio said, demurring when asked about the play. “I’m not qualified for that job.”
Said Reilly: “My heart just stopped and I said ‘we need this more than anything.’
Nebraska got the touchdown — but missed the two-point conversion. The door was thus open for Cook and Michigan State, which started its final drive with great field position, at its own 42. Cook completed a pass to Kings for 17 yards.
Just seven seconds remained.
On MSU’s final play, Cook got just enough heat from NU’s pass rush — Banker remarked that a similar pass rush against Wisconsin would have helped the Huskers win that game — that he double-clutched the ball. It was a crucial mistake. It left him no time. He threw high of tight end Josiah Price, and the game ended.
Cue the celebration. The players stayed on the field for the length of two rap songs, dancing and screaming with the crowd. They jumped on benches. They bounced to the beat. They went over to fans for hugs. They didn’t seem like they ever wanted to leave the field, which had been such a bitter place for Nebraska this year. Three bitter losses to BYU, Wisconsin and Northwestern.
“It’s just proof if you keep working, you can do good things,” Riley said. “I think that every week, but particularly where we’ve been, the thing we talked about is there’s no sense in playing this game unless you believe you can win.”
“How many, how many?” a player yelled at Riley.
“We’re gonna go ten!” Riley said. “Hey! We want them to hear it!
You know how the rest of the story goes.
|Yards per carry||4.2||5.0|
Nebraska is 8-2 all-time against Michigan State.
|South Alabama||Sept. 12|
|Miami (FL)||Sept. 19|
|Southern Miss||Sept. 26|
|Michigan State||Nov. 7|
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