EAST LANSING — Jayden Reed’s punt return — thanks to some well-executed deception — gave Michigan State football new life and, eventually, somehow, a chance to beat Nebraska in overtime despite not getting a first down on offense the entire second half Saturday night.
“I’m not going to lie. I didn’t see it until I heard the crowd went crazy,” cornerback Chester Kimbrough said. “and i looked up and i saw j-reed’s score, and i said, ‘yeah, we’re in this.'”
After the tying touchdown late in the fourth quarter, the spartans hung on to force overtime, then kimbrough eliminated adrian martinez in the nebraska series. Kenneth Walker III led the Spartans to 2 on the first play of their possession, giving MSU their only first down after halftime.
BEFORE THE GAME:Michigan State without RB Elijah Collins, two DEs in warmups
Big Ten Standings:Where Each Team Stands in the Conference
msu mailbag:How much have Spartan expectations changed?
That was followed by Matt Coghlin’s 21-yard field goal on third down to maintain the Spartans’ unlikely undefeated season with a 23-20 win in a game in which their mighty offense finally fizzled out.
msu won the toss in overtime and chose to play defense first. On third-and-3, Martinez threw to Omar Manning, but Kimbrough, an offseason transfer from Florida, jumped the route for his first interception as a Spartan, nearly returning it for a game-ending touchdown.
walker, locked up all night, took a wild 23-yard snap off the spartans’ next snap in the 25th. that allowed coghlin to seal the win three plays later, getting mobbed by teammates and denying a dominant defensive performance by cornhuskers (2-3, 0-2 big ten)
It was the first overtime win for MSU (4-0, 2-0 Big Ten) since a 16-13 win at Wisconsin in 2012. The Spartans host Western Kentucky next Saturday for their homecoming. kickoff is at 7:30 p.m. in the spartan stadium (btn).
“There was no panic,” MSU coach Mel Tucker said. “The boys really liked it, the body language was good. and the guys kept saying, ‘Keep cutting, keep cutting, keep cutting, keep cutting.’ and when you can do that, then you can do a lot with the boys. I mean, soccer is not a perfect game. it just isn’t.”
Nebraska’s defense walked into “The Woodshed” — MSU’s recently self-revived nickname for Spartan Stadium — and chewed a Spartans’ offense that had been averaging 520 yards and 39.3 points a game to a pulp in the second half. The Spartans managed 14 yards on 15 offensive plays — five three-and-outs — and failed to get a first down in the final two quarters of regulation.
Meanwhile, Martinez orchestrated time-consuming drive after drive for the ‘Huskers, with his 3-yard touchdown run with 7:29 left giving the Cornhuskers their first lead, 20-13.
on nebraska’s next possession, however, rugby-style punter daniel cerni scrambled away from his coverage with msu fielding two men back. The ball went to Reed for the first time all night, and he took off virtually unimpeded down the right side for the Spartans’ first punt-return touchdown since Keshawn Martin vs. Northwestern in 2011.
reed, who also has four touchdown receptions this season after catching payton thorne’s 35-yard touchdown on a second-quarter flea flicker, said he knew “probably 2 seconds after he got kicked” that he could break his first punt return td since his freshman season in western michigan in 2018.
“I had seen a wave of guys in red and white go down that road,” Reed said, “and I was like, ‘Yo, that’s 6 (points)’.”
reed said it was a play the spartans worked on for a few weeks, and special teams coach ross els made the decision to use it, with jalen nylonor waving his arms to try to get the cornhuskers away from where was really the ball. headed. reed added that cerni may have hit the punt.
“We have guys in college specifically for the punting thing, and we have a couple of 10-yard punts that almost cost us,” Nebraska coach Scott Frost said. “And just when we needed it most, we kicked it to the wrong end of the field, and some of the coverage guys didn’t see it and it cost us the game. I’m tired of it, we have a lot of guys who fought until the end today.”
walker, the nation’s leading runner entering the game, found little room to run; he finished with 61 yards on 19 carries, thanks to his hard work. Thorne, who was turnover-free in the first three games of the season, threw his first interception on the Spartans’ first drive; he finished 14 of 23 for 183 yards.
msu finished with 254 yards and gave up 440 yards, and nebraska had nearly three more balls than the spartans (23:18 to 6:42) in the second half. Somehow, the Spartans survived and escaped with victory in front of a crowd of 70,332.
“We never really felt like we didn’t have a chance. There wasn’t much doubt,” said safety Xavier Henderson, who had a career-high 17 tackles. “Coach Tucker always talks about not flinching. And, yeah, we were out there for a long time, but that’s the way football goes sometimes. It’s our job to stop them. …
“actually i felt pretty cool going into overtime honestly, especially coming out of a game like miami and playing in that heat. It was perfect weather for football and the Spartan nation was cheering us on. we feel the juice, the adrenaline pumping and we feel good.”
Thorne made up for the first pick with his one-handed hook off Walker’s pitch on a second-quarter flea flicker, followed by a quick delivery to Reed.
The teams traded field goals before Martinez tied the game 10-10 on a 12-yard touchdown run, breaking up tackle attempts by Angelo Grose and Quavaris crouching near the goal line.
Coghlin kicked the second of his three field goals to give the Spartans a 13-10 lead with 1:03 left in the first half. MSU led 218-199 in yards at the half, buoyed by Thorne’s 12-of-15 performance for 171 yards before it all dried up.
“team play, team win and the defense played outstanding and put us in position to win,” thorne said. “I’m grateful for that.”
the cornhuskers tied the game 13-1 on conner culp’s 28-yard field goal on the first drive of the second half and owned time of possession in the third quarter, holding the ball for 11:52.
msu’s jacub panasiuk forced martinez to fumble on the first play of the fourth quarter, although jeff pietrowski rallied in the nebraska 45. but the cornhuskers defense again forced a three-and-out by the cornhuskers’ offense the spartans.
Martinez finished 24-for-34 passing for 251 yards and an interception and rushed 20 times for 65 yards and a pair of scores.
msu’s draw beesley injured his right leg early in the second quarter and left the field in a car. Tucker did not have an update on his condition after the game, and he said he expected to know more on Sunday.
The sixth-year defensive end returned to the bench at halftime in a wheelchair, with an immobilizing boot on his right foot. He watched the rest of the game sitting on a stretcher behind the north end zone, where Reed and Coghlin delivered the tying and winning plays.
contact chris solari: [email protected] follow him on twitter @chrissolari. Read more about the Michigan State Spartans and sign up for our Spartans newsletter.