EAST LANSING, Mich. — One-by-one and two-by-two, Nebraska players filed into a room below ground at Spartan Stadium on Saturday night to attempt to explain to what had just happened.
In the immediate aftermath of the Huskers’ stunning 23-20 overtime loss to No. 20 Michigan State, running back Rahmir Johnson, quarterback Adrian Martinez, tight end Austin Allen and linebackers JoJo Domann and Garrett Nelson did their best to put words to what they had just seen on the field — a dominant second half’s worth of work at the venue recently dubbed “The Woodshed” that got chewed up like a tree trunk going through a wood chipper and spit out as waste when a late punt return touchdown and brutally swift overtime lifted the Spartans to victory — and where they go as a team from here.
“(If) I know anything about this team, we’re not going to croak,” Allen said. “We’re going to keep kicking and we’re going to keep fighting and build off this game. There’s a lot of stuff to learn out of it and we’re going to use this as another foundation we can jump off of.
“We’re going to watch this film and we’re going to be on to Northwestern.”
Allen and the current crop of Husker leadership has been in this position before, just like the group before them and several others in recent years, with preseason goals already fading further out of reach less than halfway through the season.
A week ago, coming off a loss to Oklahoma, everything Nebraska wanted to accomplish was still on the table at 2-2 overall and 0-1 in Big Ten play. Now with two league losses, that’s no longer true. In what looks like a wide-open West Division, NU is already behind the 8-ball.
Nothing’s impossible, of course, particularly with nobody in the division besides Iowa off to a great start. But the Huskers and Illinois are also the only two teams in the division that already have two league losses and one of NU’s is head-to-head against the Illini. The division is likely to be decided by other teams. The path to six wins and bowl eligibility shrunk again and the Huskers have three more games that shape up much like this one did before the first of two bye weeks arrives later in October.
Johnson on Saturday night said, “We’ve just got to flush it and come back next week and get it done. That’s all we can do. We’ve got to come back next week and get the ‘W.’”
The flushing process is aided by time itself. Saturday night bled into Sunday morning by the time Nebraska’s charter touched back down in Lincoln after the game. Soon enough, Monday morning meetings and film will roll around, the Huskers will get back on the practice field and a Saturday night game at home against Northwestern will become the next target.
It’s the beauty and the curse of the college football season. No matter what happens one Saturday, the next one comes up quickly. When the ball starts rolling downhill, it can be difficult to stop, whether the gathering momentum is good or bad.
For the Huskers, the challenge isn’t moving on — inertia takes care of that — but rather moving past another brutal set of self-inflicted circumstances.
“We know the type of team we are and this isn’t going to discourage us, just like the Illinois loss didn’t discourage us,” Martinez said of his message to the team. “We know what we’re capable of and we need to stop shooting ourselves in the foot. Simple as that. There’s going to be more stuff to it, obviously, but that’s for their ears and not yours.”
The players that spoke Saturday took the high road in talking about the demoralizing special teams gaffe — a wayward punt that Jayden Reed returned 62 yards for a touchdown without much resistance with just 3 minutes, 47 seconds remaining in regulation to tie the game — and the need to lift up teammates like freshman punter Daniel Cerni.
They reiterated what coach Scott Frost said, about the talent level in the locker room and the group’s ability to still translate what they see as progress within the program’s walls into progress in the win-loss column.
“A lot of the guys are going to be looking to see how us leaders react to this game,” Allen said. “We’re going to take it as, (this week) is a new game. That one’s over. Learn from it and we’re on to Northwestern. We’re not losing any momentum just because we stumbled a little bit right here.
“We’re going to keep fighting, keep clawing and win as many games as possible.”
Inertia is still working against this team. They are trying to push the rock up the hill rather than benefiting from gravity. How does a group go about reversing that trend? On Saturday night, the Husker players had resoluteness to rely on, if not much else.
“We want to win. We’re competitors,” Domann said. “This is why you play the game. We kind of talked in the locker room, like, we’re not quitting. It’s not in our DNA. That’s not an option. So what can we do? We can respond with a positive attitude. There are so many things we can take away from this game, good and bad. We just have to do it.”
Pressure problems continue: According to Pro Football Focus data, Michigan State only blitzed Nebraska four times on 47 drop-backs, but got pressure 28 times (including seven sacks).
That pressure rate of 59.6% is NU’s worst of the season.
Even though pressure on the quarterback isn’t always solely on the offensive line — backs and tight ends are important in protection and the quarterback can be the cause of pressure, too, if he holds the ball too long or doesn’t properly navigate in the pocket — the outing against MSU continued an alarming trend for the Huskers.
Per the PFF data, NU’s last three opponents (Buffalo, Oklahoma and the Spartans) have blitzed on just 13.6% of the Huskers’ passing attempts, but got pressure a whopping 63 times out of 110 drop-backs (57.3%).
It started right from the outset against MSU when defensive end Jacob Panasiuk beat right tackle Bryce Benhart with an inside move and right tackle Matt Sichterman’s attempt at help arrived too late. Panasiuk had knocked down Martinez by the time he took a three-step drop and tried to pump-fake.
"We've got to be ready to play. We can't give up a sack on the first play of the game in .5 seconds,” Frost said.
Panasiuk against Benhart was not a fair fight most of the night. He finished with seven tackles, including two of MSU’s seven sacks.
Punting matters: Aside from the obvious mistake late in the game that cost the Huskers a punt return touchdown and allowed MSU to tie the game, the punting discrepancy already loomed large.
While Daniel Cerni and William Przystup combined to net just an average of 28.8 yards on the six punts that weren't returned for a touchdown, MSU's Bryce Baringer had a game-changing outing of his own. He blasted six punts and had a net average of 52.3 yards. The damage could have been worse, too, as he logged a couple of touchbacks, including one that led to a net of just 26.
Samori Toure returned one for minus-1, two went for touchbacks and the other three combined to hit the grass and roll for an additional net 45 yards of field position in MSU's favor.
Bottom line: Baringer netted 314 yards of field position on six attempts. Cerni and Przstyup netted 170 on six attempts and came away with just one punt downed in good position (Cerni's second-quarter punt that was downed at the MSU 9).
That's a tremendous advantage to the Spartans and it helped them survive Nebraska's second-half onslaught until they cracked the Husker punt team for a real crushing blow on the returns core.
Betts out in second half: Zavier Betts led all receivers with five catches for 62 yards on six first-half targets, but did not play after halftime.
Frost said the freshman receiver from Bellevue West was injured and not available after halftime, but it wasn't clear when Betts may have suffered the injury during the first 30 minutes.