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Nebraska’s Seniors Deliver Big in Win Over Michigan State

November 19, 2018

On Saturday, Nebraska’s seniors were honored as they took to the field at Memorial Stadium for the final time. It’s only right that this week’s Sunday highlights post focus on the seniors as well.

On Saturday, half of Nebraska’s starters between the two sides of the ball were seniors including all four captains, and those seniors delivered some of the biggest plays of the game. Let’s take a look at them.

We have to start with the player of the game, one who didn’t even start the game and who doesn’t have a Blackshirt. Senior safety Antonio Reed made the play of the game in Saturday’s win, but it wasn’t the only play he made. Reed stuffed the stat sheet in his final game at Memorial Stadium.

The sack-fumble was his second forced fumble of the game, and the first one was a pretty darn good play as well.

Leading 3-0 with about 7 minutes to go in the first half, Michigan State set up to run the ball on first-and-10 with a packed in heavy formation. Nebraska countered with its base defense with both outside linebackers in tight.

On the snap, one tight end engaged with defensive end Freedom Akinmoladun while another stepped up to tangle with outside linebacker Tyrin Ferguson. The right guard blocked nose tackle Peyton Newell while the receiver slipped up field to engage with cornerback Lamar Jackson.

From his strong safety spot, Reed read the play and shot his guns, flying in to plug what would have otherwise been a big hole for linebacker-turned-running back Antjuan Simmons. Reed hit the hole at 100 miles an hour and put his helmet right on the ball, popping it free. 

Ferguson saw the loose ball and took off after it, but quarterback Rocky Lombardi just barely beat him there to recover the ball. The play moved the Spartans back 6 yards to set up second-and-16. Michigan State moved the chains with completions of 9 and 10 yards on the next two plays, but the defense tightened up and only gave up 5 more yards on the following three plays, leading to a Michigan State punt.

Reed isn’t just an in-the-box safety, however. He can make plays down the field too, and in big moments.

With the game tied at 6-6 and 7:26 to play, the Huskers had the Spartans in third-and-9 at their own 26-yard line. So many times this season the Huskers have found themselves in a similar situation and the Blackshirts weren’t able to get off the field. Reed wasn’t going to let that happen again.

Nebraska was in its nickel defense with JoJo Domann in the slot and two safeties deep. Michigan State sent four pass-catchers out on routes while the running back stayed int he back field to protect Lombardi. Defensive coordinator Erik Chinander sent Tre Neal on a safety blitz while Reed stayed back in the middle of the field. 

Michigan State thought it had a favorable match-up with tight end Matt Dotson running a post against inside linebacker Dedrick Young. The route took Dotson towards the area of the field where Neal had just vacated with his blitz, but Reed saw what was coming.

Lombardi threw a dime right over Young’s shoulder, putting the ball in Dotson’s stomach, but Reed hit him from behind hard enough to jar the ball free for the pass break-up.

The Spartans punted the ball away and Nebraska started its drive near midfield, turning great field position into a go-ahead field goal (a career-long of 47 yards for freshman Barret Pickering) with a six-play drive.

Reed finished the day with seven tackles including three for loss and a sack, two pass break-ups, two forced fumbles and an interception. 

“He played out of his mind,” senior nose tackle Mick Stoltenberg said about Reed. “I’m super thrilled for him. He’s obviously been here through a lot too. It was great seeing him fly around and have so much fun. The team really rallied around a lot of the plays he made today so he was huge in this win, obviously, and I’m just really proud of him.”

Sadly, this next play was wiped away by a post-play penalty, but senior outside linebacker had too good of a day not to include him in this.

Early in the second quarter, Michigan State had the ball just outside the red zone with a 3-0 lead. The Huskers stuffed a run on first down, setting up a second-and-10. Michigan State lined up in 22 personnel with one tight end in-line off the left tackle and the other in the backfield on the right side. Nebraska countered with its base defense. The receiver on the left side motioned across to the other side of the field. Both guards pulled around to the left side as Lombardi handed the ball off to Heyward.

The left tackle blocked defensive end Khalil Davis, which left the tight end to try to slow down Gifford. Gifford was far too quick for him, however, beating him off the snap and slipping inside of and past him.

Gifford is already almost 3 yards into the backfield before Hayward even gets the ball and he scrapes off the back side of the pulling right guard. Hayward tried to evade him but Gifford made a sure tackle and brought him down just inside the 25-yard line.

Unfortunately, if you watch the rest of the clip you see that left guard Tyler Higby, who pulled around to block cornerback Dicaprio Bootle, stuck with his block well past the end of the play and finished it by picking Bootle up and slamming him down, then laying on him. Inside linebacker Mohamed Barry — who also shot into the backfield untouched and likely would have made the tackle anyway had Heyward managed to avoid Gifford — saw it and went to pull Higby off of his teammate. The officials penalized Barry, turning what would have been a third-and-13 or so into a first-and-10 at the 12-yard line. 

After gains of 1 and 3 yards, Michigan State faced a third-and-6 and took to the air. Gifford got into the backfield again for a quarterback hurry and Dotson failed to come down with he catch again, then compacted the error with an unsportsmanlike conduct penalty, pushing the Spartans back to the 23-yard line where they missed a 41-yard field goal.

Gifford finished with four tackles including three solo and one for loss, two quarterback hurries and a pass break-up.

Let’s flip over to the offense and highlight Nebraska’s two senior stars on that side of the field. The offense struggled mightily on Saturday in large part because of the snowy and windy conditions, but Devine Ozigbo and Stanley Morgan Jr. both still made their presence felt.

Ozigbo managed to average 4.1 yards per carry and total 74 yards against one of the best run defenses in the country, and in the process he surpassed 1,000 yards on the season. He’s the first running back at Nebraska to do so since Ameer Abdullah in 2014.

The way he did it couldn’t have been any more appropriate, too.

Trailing 3-0 with less than five minutes remaining in the third quarter, the Huskers had the ball at their own 35-yard line on second-and-8. Nebraska lined up in 22 personnel with both receivers to the right side and tight end Austin Allen in-line on the left side. 

Four of Nebraska’s offensive linemen took on Michigan State’s four defensive linemen while Allen blocked the linebacker attacking off the edge. Left tackle Brenden Jaimes got downfield and blocked the safety. 

Ozigbo took the handoff and looped around the left side, running through the hole opened up by Allen and left guard Jerald Foster, another senior. That left two Spartans unaccounted for. The middle linebacker had the first crack at Ozigbo but the senior ran right through the tackle attempt as the Mike bounced off of him.The second player was the cornerback, and Ozigbo actually ran him over too and might have been able to stay on his feet had the safety and outside linebacker not gotten off Jaimes’ and Allen’s blocks and jumped on Ozigbo’s back to take him down. 

The 7-yard run upped his season total to 1,005 and his broken tackles count to, well, I don’t know the actual number, but it’s a lot. Unfortunately, the Spartans stuffed Ozigbo for a loss of 1 on the next play and forced a punt. 

The final play I’m going to break down did lead to points, the first of the game for Nebraska. Adrian martinez struggled mightily to connect with his receivers downfield because of the wind, but he did find Morgan for one big play early in the fourth quarter.

After a Michigan State punt plus an unsportsmanlike conduct penalty on a Spartan, the Huskers began their drive down 3-0 at the Nebraska 45-yard line. Coach Scott Frost decided to take a shot down the field.

The Huskers lined up in 11 personnel with all three receivers to the left side — Morgan to the outside, Mike Williams to the inside and senior Bryan Reimers in between them. The two seniors crossed each other with Morgan cutting inside and Reimers cutting to the outside behind him.

Ozigbo, who was lined up the backfield next to Martinez, ran out to the sideline behind the receivers. One defender read screen and started running at Ozigbo. That left just a safety and a corner to deal with Reimers and Morgan running their routes downfield as Williams cut his across the middle of the field.

I’ll let Morgan describe what happened next in his won words.

"I just saw the coverage, cover 2,” Morgan said. “I came in, set up a route for my boy Reem [Brian Reimers] to come out. I saw the safety shoot out to him and I just straightened it up and got to my landmark.”

Martinez hit Morgan on the hash mark at the 30-yard line as the senior turned around and elevated to make the catch. The safety tried to tackle him but Morgan spun out of it to run for another 5 yards before five Spartans converged to get him to the turf.

The play went for 35 yards, Nebraska’s longest play of the game. Nebraska only picked up 1 more yard on its next three plays and had to settle for a field goal, but Pickering knocked it through from 36 yards to get the Huskers on the board.

"It was very important,” Morgan said. “You saw the conditions, we weren't able to throw the ball as much as we could so big plays were huge.”

Morgan only caught four of his passes for 67 yards, but that one was a huge one and it also moved him into a tie atop Nebraska’s career receptions chart with Kenny Bell. Morgan caught one more pass later in the game to move ahead of Bell.

The Huskers have had a lot of ups and downs over the last four or five years, but at least the Huskers managed to send their seniors out with a win in their final game at Memorial Stadium, and those seniors played a big part in making that win happen.

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