LINCOLN — Luke Gifford didn’t want to leave. A strong north wind blew. Snow danced. A chilled-to-the-bone, thrilled-to-the-bone sea of Husker fans danced, too, as the Memorial Stadium video boards played a tribute Saturday to Nebraska football seniors who’d just won their final home game, 9-6, over Michigan State.
Mick Stoltenberg charged over to the end zone bleachers and pointed to the crowd.
“C’mon!” he yelled.
Coach Scott Frost, clearly emotional, pumped the game ball in the air as he jogged over to friends for a hug. Defensive coordinator Erik Chinander practically skipped off the field with two defensive linemen. Who’d want to exit that moment? It’s one this team — these seniors — had been waiting years to experience.
“The whole scene — it’s snowing and everybody’s still in the stadium and going crazy — I’ve dreamt of that ever since I was a little kid, so I wanted to take everything I could and put it in my mind and remember it,” Gifford said.
“It was like a scene out of a movie,” running back Devine Ozigbo said.
“It’s nothing I ever played, but always something I wished I played in,” said one hero of the afternoon, safety Antonio Reed.
Wish granted. On a bitterly cold, windy day right out of the Big Ten handbook — the temps stayed in the 20s and the winds gusted up to 30 mph — the Huskers beat the Spartans in a stick-to-your-ribs game that may grow in import and legend should the Frost era turn out to be as special as fans hope.
NU’s explosive, fast-paced offense was grounded by Michigan State’s defense, so it fell to Nebraska’s maligned defense and special teams to hold their own and help deliver the win in the fourth quarter, when league November games are won or lost through endurance and attrition.
And they did. NU (4-7 overall and 3-5 in the Big Ten) held MSU to 289 yards and came up with two turnovers. Husker punter Isaac Armstrong averaged 41 net yards per punt. Then, of course, freshman Barret Pickering hit three fourth-quarter field goals to deliver the win. It was believed to be the first time since 1937 that Nebraska had won a game without scoring a touchdown.
It was the first time Pickering, from Hoover, Alabama, had ever kicked in the snow, too. The game-winner, from 47 yards, was his career-long. Pretty good, kid.
“It was a little cold out there,” he said. “I’m not going to lie.”
Was it ever. Though last weekend’s 54-35 win over Illinois had a colder kickoff temperature, Saturday’s north wind swirled up a swarm of small snowflakes and put a bite in the air that sent fans for warmer concourses during breaks. It clamped both offenses, which combined to complete just 31 of 78 passes.
Playing without injured receiver JD Spielman, Nebraska’s offense didn’t produce a drive longer than 44 yards. Michigan State’s ornery, physical defense, flagged for multiple personal fouls, gummed up the Husker run game and forced five fumbles. Frost said the weather forced him to junk many of the passing plays that might have worked in different conditions.
Quarterback Adrian Martinez, having his worst game since a 56-10 loss at Michigan, was left trying to throw short passes and dodge MSU’s pass rush.
Michigan State backup quarterback Rocky Lombardi, playing for injured starter Brian Lewerke, similarly struggled, completing 15 of 41 passes. Several Spartans dropped passes, and MSU’s intermittently successful run game couldn’t sustain drives.
Reed, in his final home game, logged seven tackles, three for loss and one a sack. He also forced two fumbles and intercepted a pass.
“He was certainly the hero of our defense today,” said Frost, who needed the defense to help the Huskers survive a third quarter into the wind so they could take full advantage in the fourth.
With 12:07 left, trailing the Spartans 6-0, NU finally got the ball at its own 45. The snow was starting to gently accumulate.
“Just finish it out,” said senior receiver Stanley Morgan, who set the school record for career catches Saturday.
Morgan got Nebraska’s offense going with a 35-yard catch right up the seam. That set up Pickering’s first field goal, a 36-yarder.
On MSU’s next drive, Reed screamed in on a safety blitz, hammering Lombardi and dislodging the ball. Nose tackle Damion Daniels recovered. NU turned that into a 20-yard Pickering field goal to tie the game at 6.
Michigan State (6-5, 4-4) went three-and-out on its next drive and punted 35 yards into the wind. Morgan returned the punt 8 yards to the Nebraska 47.
The Huskers gained 23 yards on five plays. Fourth down at the MSU 30. Frost said he chose to let Pickering kick the field goal because he had confidence from Pickering’s previous two makes.
Pickering and Armstrong, the holder, cleared a little snow from the ground for a clean spot. Because the north wind was blowing diagonally across the field, Pickering aimed his field goal at the left pipe, hoping it’d fade to the middle.
“Once I saw it moving back right, I knew it was going in,” Pickering said. Senior left guard Jerald Foster picked up Pickering to celebrate, but Pickering had to inform him: I have to do the kickoff.
Twice after that, Michigan State moved into Nebraska territory. Once, the Spartans punted. On their final drive, they moved to the Husker 29. The wind made a 46-yard field goal impossible, so Lombardi had to throw on fourth-and-4.
“Their go-to routes are slants,” Nebraska safety Tre Neal said. So, as he saw Michigan State tight end Matt Sokol coming across the field, Neal squatted on the route and knocked the ball down before Sokol could possess it.
The 88,793 fans who braved the cold — and largely stayed — roared. Nebraska had to get one first down to run out the clock, and did.
“I think we wanted it more at the end of the game,” Martinez said.
Frost didn’t ask for the game ball, but someone gave it to him, and he didn’t intend to give it back to the equipment guys any time soon. Afterward, Frost said he wished Nebraska could have started the season faster, but, with the benefit of hindsight, he expects the seniors will remember it as “pretty special.”
Same with Saturday’s win. Frost joked that he went to bed Friday night “with his fingers crossed and hands folded in prayer” for weather that would allow his offense to pass and his game plan to work.
The wind and snow had other plans. Better plans. Big Ten plans.
“Every week I have been coaching them, I think there’s a little more fight,” Frost said. “Today was certainly the most I’ve seen.”
Ozigbo, who reached 1,000 rushing yards for the season, called Saturday “special.”
“It’s hard to explain,” he said.
But easy to remember.
|Yards per carry||3.8||3.4|
Nebraska is 9-2 all-time against Michigan State.
|Troy (formerly Troy State)||Sept. 15|
|Ohio State||Nov. 3|
|Michigan State||Nov. 17|
Nebraska has played 17 games on Nov. 17. See them all »
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