LINCOLN — Five — not alive.
Nebraska crossed itself off the Big Ten football title list with a 41-28 loss to Michigan State. The Huskers lost four fumbles and threw an interception. The slower, safer Spartans turned those five miscues into 24 points. They never trailed and shrugged off the sweaty moments by falling on unexpected pigskin treats.
On a warm, windy Saturday full of quirky bounces, penalties, punts, fans booing referees and third-down conversions — so many plays that swung emotions among the 90,872 fans at Memorial Stadium — these Husker turnovers remained, five punched-out holes in a scorecard.
“You turn the ball over five times, you're not going to beat an average team, let alone a pretty stout one,” wide receiver Kenny Bell said.
“It's just — goddangit! — we didn't even give ourselves a chance today,” offensive coordinator Tim Beck said. His quarterback — Tommy Armstrong — accounted for three of the turnovers, and now has nine turnovers in his past four games. Reporters requested Armstrong to speak after the game. Some waited nearly an hour, after which NU media relations staffers said he had left the locker room.
Beck continued: “Dumbfounded. Just dumbfounded. Put a lot of emphasis on it. For the most part, we've been a lot better at it this year. Those mistakes today were just — ugh — I don't know. Just can't put a finger on it.”
Having lost its second Big Ten game, NU's out of the Legends Division race because Minnesota and the Spartans — the teams still in contention — beat the Huskers. It'll be the 14th year without a conference title.
Nebraska suffered its ninth double-digit loss in three years, lost the turnover battle for a fifth straight week and is minus-28 in turnover margin for the Bo Pelini era. For the sake of comparison, Michigan State is plus-21 over that same span.
Pelini praised his team's pluck and resilience for fighting through the miscues. Players expressed pride in playing hard until the final whistle.
“Guys played hard tonight,” Bell said. “We just didn't play smart.”
“We almost found a way,” Pelini said.
Nebraska often did during its “win out” stretch in 2012. Not Saturday. Not after those turnovers.
Terrell Newby dropped an option pitch on the game's third play. Armstrong misread Michigan State's defense, threw past Bell on a short route and got picked off. Jordan Westerkamp fumbled his second punt in two weeks. The Spartans scored 10 points off those first-quarter mistakes.
But the final two fumbles by Armstrong were the backbreakers.
The first came at the end of the first half with 1:10 left, as Nebraska attempted to milk the clock and head into the locker trailing 13-7. NU faced third-and-11. Beck called a quarterback draw, trying to get the best of both worlds: a running play that kept the ball out of the air and a play that could, in theory, hit for a first down. Armstrong was hit and fumbled. The Spartans recovered and scored a touchdown in three plays.
“That is what I was fighting against doing,” Pelini said.
Said Beck: “Quarterback draw was a good play against their pass rush. They twisted a little bit. And (Tommy) just didn't handle the ball.”
Second Armstrong fumble: Nebraska trailed 20-14 after a 51-yard Imani Cross touchdown run. A Michigan State punt pinned NU at its own 1. Pushed against their own goal line, the Huskers have given up a safety this year and nearly had one last week against Michigan. This time, the ball seemed to magically emerge, as if a Golden Snitch with its own ideas, from the scrum to seven yards outside the tackle box, where the Spartans recovered. It was the most baffling offensive play of Nebraska's season.
“I don't think he ever had control of the ball,” Pelini said. “I saw it right away. It looked like it kind of ricocheted in there.”
“I don't think he ever got the ball,” Beck said.
“I didn't know he'd fumbled until I saw the ball squirting around out there,” said guard Cole Pensick, who was pulling around end to find Nebraska's title hopes sitting on the turf.
“I'm not sure,” said one of the two guys who should know for sure what happened, center Mark Pelini. He said he wanted to watch the play Sunday on film.
Anyway, Michigan State (9-1 overall, 6-0 in the Big Ten) also scored a touchdown off that fumble to grab a 27-14 lead with 5:26 left in the third quarter.
The Huskers (7-3, 4-2) answered with a 38-yard touchdown pass from Armstrong to Bell. They had one drive to take the lead in the fourth quarter, but Armstrong threw behind an open Jake Long on third-and 11 and Nebraska had to punt. The Spartans put the game away with two fourth-quarter touchdown drives, converting four third-down plays and a fourth-and-1 fake field goal. Michigan State ran 16 more plays and gained 31 fewer yards. Nebraska racked up 392 yards on the Spartans' top-ranked defense, with running back Ameer Abdullah rushing for 123 yards and 5.6 yards per carry. He's the first back to reach 100 on Michigan State this year. Abdullah declined interview requests after the game.
“When we wanted to, we moved the ball,” said Bell, who caught seven passes for 81 yards. Beck and Pelini both said they liked their plan.
The execution, especially at quarterback, was fleeting. Beck conceded that senior Taylor Martinez, seemingly lost for the season with what his father called a “debilitating” toe injury, would have recognized some of the Spartans' defensive feints and stunts. Armstrong, Beck said, is still learning. Ron Kellogg led a garbage time touchdown drive at game's end, and Beck considered using him earlier, but he saw Armstrong just beginning to “come out of his shell” in the first half.
“We didn’t play exceptionally well at the quarterback position,” Beck said. “And usually, if you watch college football, if that guy’s not playing real well, chances are you’re probably not going to win. He’s very down. It’s not his loss. We still had opportunities. Didn’t make some plays.”
The Huskers were confident they’d bounce back for next Saturday’s game at Penn State.
“Same way we always do,” Bell said. “We’re used to it around here.”
“They played with passion,” Pelini said. “As a head coach, that’s all you can ask. We’ll go fix some things that need fixed. This is a heck of a team.”
That does some of the darnedest things.
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Video: Nebraska coach Bo Pelini after the MSU game:
Video: NU's Kenny Bell after the Michigan State game:
Video: Sam McKewon's postgame analysis: