Nebraska’s win probability in East Lansing peaked at 93.6%, according to ESPN, when Nick Henrich and Luke Reimer (and a couple of other Blackshirts) teamed up for a sack of Payton Thorne on third down.
Nebraska followed that up with a three-and-out and sent out the punt team with four minutes left. Then things went haywire.
No. 20 Michigan State’s 62-yard punt-return touchdown is this week’s Play of the Game.
At that point, Nebraska lead 20-13. The Blackshirts had been pitching a shutout with Michigan State failing to convert even a single first down. A decent punt there from inside Nebraska’s 30 would have set the Huskers up with a great chance to win the game.
They didn’t get a decent punt.
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Daniel Cerni, Nebraska’s second punter of the day, dropped back to punt and the ball came off his foot sideways to the left. Most of the coverage unit didn’t notice it and ran towards the returner near the right sideline. Jayden Reed caught the ball at the 37-yard line between the hash marks and the numbers.
Nick Henrich was the closest Husker, at the 49-yard line right in the middle of the field, but he wasn’t able to change directions quickly enough to get a good angle on the speedy Reed. A couple of Spartans threw blocks near the Nebraska 40 to spring Reed and he beat Chris Kolarevic in a foot race to the end zone for Michigan State’s first punt-return touchdown since 2011.
“We’ve got to punt the ball,” Coach Scott Frost said. “We have guys at the university specifically for the reason to punt it, and we have a couple 10-yard punts that almost cost us and right when we need it the most we kick it to the wrong side of the field and some of the covers guys didn’t see it, and it cost us the game.”
Suddenly, the ball game was tied at 20-20 with 3:47 to go, and little went Nebraska’s way after that. The game went to overtime where Michigan State kicked a field goal for the win following an interception by Adrian Martinez.
Once again, special teams let Nebraska down. Fresh off a game with punts of 52 and 48 yards, William Przystup got the start against his former team and was excited to “kick some butt.” His three punts went for 28, 41 and 7 yards. After the 7-yard shank late in the first half, Cerni got the nod in the second half. His first punt went for 33 yards, though it went out of bounds at the 9-yard line to back the Spartans up.
His second punt of the first half traveled about the same distance — 34 yards — but the final result was very different. Nebraska also gave up kickoff returns of 41 and 28 yards to Reed. Connor Culp did his job, converting both of his field goals and both of his extra points, but that was about the only positive to take away from Nebraska’s special teams unit on Saturday.
“It wasn’t just the punters,” Frost said. “We’ve got to catch punts. We probably gave 200 or 300 yards of hidden yardage on special team. We didn’t cover kicks well. The punt was huge and letting balls roll out on their punts is huge. That’s all yards that you can’t get back. Coach [Mike] Dawson is doing as good a job as he knows how to do, and as good a job as I know how to tell him to do. We’ve got to do better, and at some point, we’ve got to be able to trust guys to do the things that they were brought here to do.”
Nebraska had the game in its hands, and then suddenly it didn’t. One busted play wiped out a seven-point advantage on a night when the Spartans found it nearly impossible to move the ball against the Blackshirts in the second half.
That’s why Michigan State’s 62-yard punt-return touchdown is this week’s Play of the Game.
Jacob is in his third year with Hail Varsity covering Husker athletics. He has also written extensively for SB Nation’s Bright Side of the Sun and The Creightonian. His love of basketball can best be described as an obsession and if you need to find him, he’s probably in a gym somewhere watching, coaching or playing hoops.