LINCOLN — If you missed Saturday’s game, you have to scan pretty far down the final stat sheet before you have any sense why Nebraska lost to Michigan State.
First downs? Nebraska had one more than the Spartans. Rushing yards? The Huskers had 182, the most against Michigan State since Nebraska had 313 last year. Total offense? Even if you lop off the last 12 plays and 75 yards from the Huskers’ final drive, where the Spartans were content to just keep everything in front of them, Nebraska still averaged more than six yards per play against a defense that came in giving up less than four.
The defense deserves even more credit for giving the offense every chance to climb back into the game. Michigan State ran 80 plays and only averaged 4.5 yards on each of them.
It’s not until you get down to the “Fumbles” category that any of this makes sense. Then you see it – six fumbles, four lost, the most in 20 games for the Huskers — and it’s the only thing that matters. It’s so glaring that Tommy Armstrong Jr.’s interception, the one turnover that didn’t turn into a score, almost seems like a footnote.
Of course, it’s all a footnote to the painfully simple reality here: Michigan State won the game and likely the division. On its home field, Nebraska dropped the ball.
It’s sort of odd having such a clear reason for a loss.
“We didn’t lose that football game because of a lack of effort or a lack of want-to,” Bo Pelini said. “We just made too many mistakes to overcome.”
That’s not unique to the Pelini era. Nebraska, against all odds, is somehow continually on the losing end of the turnover battle.
What was unique is that those turnovers never seemed to derail the Huskers. The defense kept getting stops, the offense continued to move the ball, the game plan was elegant and effective. By any objective measure, or subjective analysis for that matter, Nebraska outplayed Michigan State and lost. Run back through Nebraska’s losses under Pelini since joining the Big Ten and it’s hard to find another game where that was the case.
It’s even harder to know what to make of that and this season now. I’m not sure I’ve ever heard Pelini speak more softly after a win or a loss. Few players chose to give their thoughts on the game – Armstrong and Ameer Abdullah didn’t, Maliek Collins and Mark Pelini did – and that’s probably for the best. It was hard to watch the reality of this season dawn on the players and coaches in the minutes after the game in the way that it’s hard to watch anyone fail.
The Huskers’ future has perhaps never seemed so bright yet so murky at the same time. On the one hand, the Huskers appear set up pretty well for the years to come. The defense has already exceeded most reasonable expectations with its improvement throughout the season and, given the youth, appears ready to jell into something resembling Michigan State in the years to come. The offense should be loaded with playmakers again next year and Armstrong will continue to improve.
But none of it will matter at all if the Huskers can’t figure out how to stop hurting themselves. I wrote earlier this year that Nebraska almost had to win each game twice – once against the opponent and once against itself.
On Saturday, Nebraska beat Michigan State but lost to Nebraska. That’s happened, to varying degrees, before but never as starkly as this.
How much longer can it keep happening? The answer might depend on the Huskers’ next two games.
Nebraska was always going to have a hard time on the road against Penn State and then versus a hungry Iowa team in Lincoln. Now it’s even harder.
There’s no easy motivation angle, no backs against the wall, no wrong to right. There’s only the work.
And that can be illustrative too. Maybe even more so than playing with a division title and a shot at the conference championship on the line.
I think there’s a lot at stake for Nebraska football in the next two weeks. It’s not this loss that makes me think that. It’s quite easy to explain this one.
But it’s much harder to explain how Nebraska remains its own worst enemy.
That’s been the case for a while now and it has cost the Huskers again.