EAST LANSING, Mich. — Grinning Spartans hit the goal post with hard slaps. Huskers left the field with disbelieving, anguished faces. An after-hours, overtime-fueled green-and-white party ensued around them and they couldn’t absorb an ounce of those good vibes.
Tight end Travis Vokolek, his face full of black paint, held his head up, looked briefly into the party scene, and headed into the only tunnel in and out of the field of play.
If you thought the pain over a Husker loss couldn’t be any greater, try NU’s 23-20 loss to No. 20 Michigan State on for size. The Spartans didn’t have a first down in the entire second half — and won. The Huskers dominated that half — and held a 20-13 lead deep into the fourth quarter — when punter Daniel Cerni kicked the ball 30 yards left of his intended target, right into the hands of returner Jayden Reed, who ran nearly untouched, 62 yards, into the end zone for the game-tying score. MSU then hit the game-winning field goal in overtime, a period where NU has not scored a single point in years.
Coach Scott Frost — who kicked at the grass and buried his head in his hands after the punt return — could barely contain his frustration afterward.
“We had no business losing that game,” Frost said.
Over several minutes, the emotions seeped out of him, going over the contours of this loss, which felt like so many others. He went over the first-half false starts that cost his team points, the open receiver quarterback Adrian Martinez missed in overtime, the “200 to 300 yards” his team lost because of a failure to catch punts, cover kickoffs or return kickoffs, and, of course, Cerni’s punt, so off line it would have been a bizarre mistake if Reed hadn’t been standing under as a second returner.
“I’m tired of it,” Frost said. “We have a lot of guys who are. We had a ton of guys who battled their butts off out there today. I told them I didn’t want anybody hanging their heads — we’ve got a really good football team — but this team has to change their record. ... I can keep trying to fix it. These guys got to do it. And we’ve got a good enough team to do that. But they’ve got to get sick of this stuff. I’m sick of it, they’re sick of it. We’ve got to be able to count on guys to be able to do their job.”
Nebraska’s defense, in not allowing a first down in the second half, lived up to that billing. MSU gained just 14 yards in the second half — it gained more in OT — and ran just 15 plays. Martinez called the D "the backbone" of the team. The fuel.
NU’s offense, meanwhile, ran 48 second-half plays, turning a 13-10 halftime deficit into a 20-13 lead after an 11-play, 80-yard drive culminated with Martinez’s 2-yard touchdown run. When the Blackshirts forced a punt, NU got it back with 6:13 left in the game.
Martinez’s third-down QB draw came up a few yards short. The Huskers had to punt — but, with that defense, they could smell victory.
“It’s four minutes away, right?” Martinez said. “(But) none of us thought it was over.”
It wasn’t. Cerni came on to punt. The ball went left instead of right. Reed caught it and had few defenders to evade on his way to the end zone. Only one — a member of Nebraska's punt shield, who would never normally be in position to tackle a returner — was the only Husker to get a paw on Reed.
On YouTube, just hours later, a highlights account called it "the most Nebraska way to lose a game."
“We had the momentum,” said running back Rahmir Johnson, who had 76 rushing yards. “We just gave it away, snap of the fingers.”
NU (2-3 overall and 0-2 in the Big Ten) still had two more drives to win in regulation after allowing the score. Neither produced much success, and Frost, instead of trying for a last-second drive, chose to go to overtime after Martinez was sacked for the seventh time on the night.
The Huskers haven’t scored in overtime since 2014. That spans two losses to Northwestern, a loss at Miami, and a loss at Colorado in 2019 to the same coach, Mel Tucker, who coached Michigan State (4-0 and 2-0) on Saturday night.
Frost said he loved the first play of overtime, and felt like two receivers — Levi Falck and Omar Manning — were open for big gains or scores. Falck got by his man untouched and roared past the safety. Manning may have had a step on his man up the sideline. Martinez checked it down to Johnson. Falck shook his head in the end zone.
“We got exactly what we wanted, we rehearsed that play,” Frost said. “We had Levi running wide open up the seam, we had Omar with the chance in the back of the end zone. We didn’t throw it.”
Martinez said he’d have to look at the tape again. On third down, Martinez threw a “bad” interception on a slant pass. Martinez, who briefly left the game to get X-rays on his upper body, finished with 59 yards rushing and 248 yards passing.
Kenneth Walker, penned in most of the night by Nebraska’s defense, broke off a 23-yard run to start OT. MSU’s Matt Coghlin hit a 21-yarder for the win. The 70,332 at Spartan Stadium celebrated and jeered at the few Husker fans who left the stadium quietly. MSU players streamed up the lone tunnel that leads out of the field. Nebraska players did, then, as well.
The Huskers gained 186 more yards. It ran 31 more plays. It possessed the ball for nearly 15 more minutes. Aside from sacks — and all those hidden yards that were lost — they controlled the game in nearly every way. Except the final score. Nebraska lost there, and it has now lost 15 one-score games under Frost.
Martinez has been a part of almost all of those losses. None, he said, has been worse.
“At the top for me, right now, that’s how it feels,” Martinez said. “We’ll leave it at that.”