On completely different paths, Michigan State vs. Nebraska ends just as you’d expect
Like two ships passing in the night, Michigan State and Nebraska briefly met on Saturday night in East Lansing. And now Mel Tucker and Scott Frost will go their separate ways, in opposite directions, likely never to see each other again (as head coaches, that is).
Michigan State’s 23-20 comeback win over Nebraska in overtime perfectly symbolized the tenures of these head coaches. The Spartans, already ranked No. 20 in Tucker’s second season, are ascending. And the Huskers, once against below .500 in Frost’s fourth season, are sinking.
It’s kind of ironic when you think about it. Frost was the perfect guy for Nebraska; he was the savior to rescue a downtrodden program. Tucker was the fallback for Michigan State; he was Plan C after Mark Dantonio unexpectedly retired and Luke Fickell opted to stay at Cincinnati.
Losing like this was yet another gut-punch for a fan base that is dying for a reason to celebrate. Or at least feel some optimism. Has there been a tougher loss for Nebraska to stomach than this one? It feels like that’s something you can say nearly every week for the Huskers, but this one especially. It would’ve been Frost’s first win over a ranked opponent as Nebraska’s head coach. It would’ve reversed the disturbing trend of losing 1-score games. It would’ve kept the door open for a bowl bid (which gets a lot more challenging now).
Midway through the fourth quarter, if you thought Saturday night was going to be Nebraska’s big breakthrough under Frost (hand up, I did), well, you disregarded 3 years worth of disappointing finishes. After a brilliant 11-play drive to go up by a touchdown, Nebraska had its long awaited breakthrough victory under Frost in its sights.
So of course, the Huskers promptly let speedster Jayden Reed get a full head of steam on a punt return and bring it back 62 yards to tie the game. Dirk Chatelain of the Omaha World-Herald wrote an excellent piece this week on how special teams is costing Nebraska in close games. It’s hard to believe that in 2014, the Huskers ranked No. 1 in the country in special teams, according to ESPN. Under Frost, Nebraska is arguably the worst in Power 5.
And it’s a shame, too, because Nebraska’s defense once again was exceptional. It held a Michigan State offense that came into Saturday averaging over 520 yards per game to just 245. It held the nation’s leading rusher, Kenneth Walker III, to 61 yards on 19 carries. What more can you ask for from that unit? This is a winning defense.
But this isn’t a winning team. For that, Nebraska would have to look across the field to the other sideline. Michigan State is everything the Huskers hoped to be.
The Spartans (4-0) know how to finish, as they showed Saturday (and last week at Miami). They know how to squash inferior opponents (like they did with Northwestern and Youngstown State the first 2 weeks) early on, the way Nebraska wasn’t able to do with Illinois (and Fordham and Buffalo, to an extent). Michigan State, just 1 of 2 teams in the Big Ten with a top-6 passing offense and rushing offense, has the balance that Nebraska has never been able to establish. Just as Martinez improved his accuracy and got some decent weapons outside, the run game has plummeted.
And most glaring on Saturday night, Michigan State executes on special teams! Reed’s return was a designed play in which teammate Jalen Nailor acted as a decoy, pretending he caught the punt, fooling Nebraska’s defense. The Huskers can barely manage to not turn the ball over on special teams, much less pull off a designed play.
JAYDEN REED TO THE HOUSE 💨💨
MICHIGAN STATE TIES IT AT 20pic.twitter.com/UbucV8Xv2P
— Hammer DAHN (@HammerDAHN) September 26, 2021
There’s just no way that Michigan State should’ve won that game, with only 12 first downs to Nebraska’s 25. Not after it converted just 1 of 11 times on third down.
But the difference between a win and a loss often comes down to a play or 2. Frost knows that as well as anyone. As usual, the Nebraska was a play or 2 short. The difference on Saturday was Reed’s punt return and cornerback Chester Kimbrough jumping a slant route in overtime and picking off Martinez.
You have to give Martinez credit; he takes hit after hit, sacrificing his body and trying to will the Huskers to a win. But he never seems able to make that game-clinching play. Just like last week against Oklahoma, when the Huskers had a chance to tie, he didn’t find a way.
So here Nebraska sits at 2-3, with all 3 losses by 1 possession. And here Michigan State sits, 4-0 with 3 wins over Power 5 programs. Frost and Tucker are on opposite trajectories. It would be a shock if Frost is still the coach when Nebraska comes back to East Lansing in 2023.
And if this is Frost’s final season at Nebraska, this loss could be the tipping point.