Recap: The Gingerbread Man

Gregory Shamus

Looking back at what went wrong in MSU's loss to Nebraska.

First, I want to give credit to the 70,000-ish MSU fans who showed up Saturday. With tickets in the single-digit pricing range during the week, I was expecting the worst. I was expecting the Sea of Red to take over Spartan Stadium, and the MSU fanbase to be embarrassed on national television.

It was about 1,500 short of a sellout, but the tickets that were eaten up in the secondary market were mostly MSU fans. Nebraska didn't have many more fans than most road teams bring to East Lansing. I'm sure part of that was because of previous and upcoming trips, but nonetheless, Spartans fans generally showed well when it looked bleak.

They also stayed loud and kept believing up until the final touchdown pass in a 28-24 loss (Box score here). Mark Dantonio pleaded with fans to show and be enthusiastic, and they certainly were. Well, except the students. They didn't quite fill the lower bowl, and that was more than I expected. Cut the upper deck. They don't deserve it.

I might be overestimating when I say maybe 65,000 people will show up for the Northwestern game next week. I ripped MSU fans last week, and I was proven wrong. But if no one shows up for Northwestern, I won't blame anyone. Your hearts have just been ripped out too many times. After 15 straight home wins, MSU has clinched a below-.500 record at Spartan Stadium for the first time since 2006. Good luck with those season ticket renewals.

Dantonio called Saturday the most heartbreaking of all his losses at MSU. I wouldn't put it above Michigan in 2007, but given how much the Spartans felt the game was stolen, I can understand why he said it.

The refs did not lose the game for MSU, though they certainly hurt their chances of winning. I have no idea why Johnny Adams was called for that penalty. KJ summed it up pretty well with his comment in the reaction post.

"No player shall run into or throw himself against an opponent obviously out of the play either before or after the ball is dead."

Hard to say the opponent was "obviously" out of the play when he's still chasing the ball carrier. Seems like the official took two half-considerations and turned them into a full penalty: block was behind the play (but not fully out of the play) and the hit was hard (but not illegal).

Needless to say, an extremely frustrating call. A bigger deal, really, than the bad PI call in terms of flipping the game result. Without the PI call, MSU only has a 50% chance to win (in OT). Without the PF call, MSU is up 17 and I really do think it's game over.

Adams caught up to Darqueze Dennard as he crossed the goal line, so Kenny Bell likely would have had a chance, given how many tackles Dennard had to dodge. But maybe it doesn't happen if Bell is running harder? I hate to say Adams should just lay off, given it's a receiver, and defensive players get blocked like that all the time. There were some really stupid personal fouls in this one, but I'm not counting Adams' in that. Still, if the score counts, MSU wins. Frustrating.

On the other had, MSU still had the ball and a 10-point lead with 10 minutes left. You have to close that out. You have to. I'm a little more wordy on this topic in my Freep column.

Yeah, this also was a bad call. When you get your head around, you usually get the benefit of the doubt. But how about MSU doesn't let the Huskers pick up 234 yards in the fourth and drive from 20-yard line to 20-yard line in the first place — including a fourth down play? (As for that final drive, I didn't care for the timeouts, but I hated rushing three even more. They blitzed at the end, but it was too late. Played out just like Iowa in 2009).

No call, and that's a 37-yard attempt by a typically-good kicker. Not a guarantee, but no guarantee MSU wins in overtime, either.

The referees did a terrible job (there were some bad calls that led to MSU points, too), but the bottom line is MSU's defense still had too many chances to close it out, and they didn't, again. They kept MSU in a lot of games this season, but they lost this one.

More on that below, but first, looking back at my keys for each team.

For MSU:

Pass to set up the run: Very much a success, in my eyes. I don't have the exact numbers in front of me, but I thought MSU's play-calling was very good. There were many runs out of the shotgun, and the Spartans finished with 238 yards on 43 total rushes (5.5 yards per carry).

Touchdowns, not field goals: MSU reached the red zone three times and came away with points each time, including two touchdowns. Can't really complain about that, especially given how dreadful this team has been in the red zone.

Make the Huskers one-dimensional: Eh, sort of. The Huskers were able to run all over MSU, but didn't find much success in the passing game. Taylor Martinez finished 16-for-36 for 160 yards, two touchdowns and three interceptions. But he did make some big throws on the final drive.

For Nebraska:

Run the ball: Yup. When MSU is drawing comparisons to the 2002 squad, it's not good. The Huskers finished with 313 yards rushing, which was the most ever against a Dantonio-coached MSU team, and the 7.8 yards per carry were the most allowed by MSU since the 61-7 loss at Penn State in 2002.

Pressure the quarterback: Nebraska didn't record a sack, but did have five QB hurries. While Andrew Maxwell's passing numbers were brutal, it was mostly due to other factors.

Turnovers: As many Nebraska fans predicted, the Huskers coughed the ball up quite a bit. Three interceptions were thrown, and you could argue that was why MSU was even in a position to win. Martinez also fumbled, but instead of falling on it and putting MSU in a great spot to put the game away, the Spartans tried to pick it up, couldn't, and Nebraska regained it (although the drive ended in an INT). Le'Veon Bell had a rare fumble that Nebraska recovered around midfield, but did nothing with it. I'm not counting the fumble on the final play.
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Now, thoughts on MSU play on each side of the ball:

Offense:

For all the griping about Dan Roushar, I thought the gameplan was generally good. As I said above, they passed to set up the run a bit, even if the passing game was pretty bad. The offensive line seems to finally have some chemistry going, the same way they finished 2011 strong after injuries early in the season. Maxwell wasn't sacked, and Bell finished with 188 yards on 36 carries (5.2 ypc). He might have run out the shotgun more against Nebraska than the entire season up to that point. It gives him more options to go inside or outside, depending where the hole is.

As for that passing game, sitting behind the goalposts in the south end zone, I was able to have a good view of the receivers' routes, and almost every one goes to the outside. An ESPN analyst pointed it out during the Wisconsin game that MSU rarely runs routes in the middle. The only routes in the middle are either drags or deep balls. What happened to curl routes from Dion Sims in the slot or near the line? He was spread out wide quite a bit, so his ankle must be fine. Many times, MSU had two receivers running low and high out routes, but with Nebraska playing all man-to-man (as they did last year), there frequently were more defenders in the area than receivers.

As has been the case all season, people aren't getting very open. There's not much Maxwell can do about that. His final numbers (9-for-27, 123 yards, one touchdown) are eerily similar to Kirk Cousins' at Nebraska last year (11-for-27, 86 yards, 1 INT). MSU got the running game going this time, but you might want to try something different at Nebraska next year.

Still, putting up 24 points for this offense feels like a whole lot. But they couldn't finish, either. Of the three drives that started in the fourth quarter, MSU ran 11 plays, picked up 26 yards and punted three times. Was it conservative? On the first two drives (both three-and-outs), MSU dropped back to pass four times. They picked up 21 yards on five rushes on the third drive. I was fine with punting on 4th-and-2. It ended up being a net gain of 19 yards, but when the opponent just needs a field goal, that's a big difference, though it obviously didn't work out.

Defense:

Most of the numbers are already above. MSU gave up about 250 yards in the first half, 130 of which came on two runs by Taylor Martinez, who finished with 205 yards on 17 carries for a nice 12.1 ypc. This brings up the obvious question: Why can MSU bottle up Denard Robinson and not Martinez? Some people were a little shocked that Pat Narduzzi said in his postgame presser that he thinks Martinez is faster than Denard.

Some tried to say it's poking the rivalry fire, but that's not what I thought, at all. Robinson might be the best rushing quarterback of all-time. That's why people were asking the same question in my section. And honestly, at times, Martinez did look faster, though maybe it's because Robinson only got into the open field a few times over three years against MSU. Maybe Martinez is better at running the read option. Whatever it was, when he got going, MSU had a hard time bringing him down.

Maybe this shouldn't be a surprise, given how Braxton Miller found quite a bit of success in the read option against earlier this year. Whatever the reason, it's clear the idea that MSU bottles up all running quarterbacks is no longer true.

You can point to some penalties, but MSU gave up 473 total yards, and 234 yards in the fourth quarter. That's not a winning formula for a defense. They said after Ohio State that they wanted to be back in a position to win the game, and they failed against Iowa, Michigan and now Nebraska. As good as this defense has been, they've struggled to close.

Special teams:

Another game, another miss from Dan Conroy. It was from 49 yards, so it's understandable, but if he hasn't missed one in seven different games, it doesn't feel as frustrating. He also made a 25-yarder. Nebraska's kicker missed a 30-yarder, so don't point at Conroy for the loss.

Mike Sadler was great again, averaging 46.6 yards on seven punts, including a long of 60 and three inside the 20. Just one punt was returned, 10 yards by Andre Sims Jr. The decision to put Kyler Elsworth on kick return with Nick Hill backfired once, with Elsworth actually returning a kick just 17 yards. I get why they do it, just don't know if I like it.

Conclusions:

Where do you go from here? Well, to basketball season, for now. The football team finally has its long-needed bye, although heading into it after this heartbreaker has to be a bit demoralizing.

Yes, it's frustrating that the Spartans have lost four Big Ten games by a total of 10 points, but don't forget, their two wins have come by a total of seven points in two wild comebacks. Plus a three-point win over Boise State. This isn't a case of MSU losing every close game. It's a case of a not-so-great team that can't pull away or put away a team, but isn't out of it when they're behind, either.

Not only do the close losses remind people of 2009, but that 2009 team also won two Big Ten games by six points or less and two more by 10 points each. Minor setback for a major comeback?

There's a lot of pointing toward the amount of penalties (nine for 100 yards), and how this apparently is uncharacteristic. MSU has been near the bottom of the conference in penalties in every year under Dantonio. They were actually eighth in the Big Ten entering Saturday (now at 10th). When you play a defensive style based on energy, aggressiveness and speed, these types of personal fouls are going to happen. Coaches say they can live with aggressive penalties. It's the unforced onces (false start, etc) that are frustrating. No type of coaching is going to change what decision a player makes in a split-second at full speed.

MSU coaches want the players to be aggressive (60 minutes of unnecessary roughness ring a bell?), so this is going to happen. By the way, the two teams averaging more penalty yards per game? Ohio State and Nebraska.

Instead of getting that sixth win and the monkey off their backs, the Spartans head into their bye week with two more chances to reach a bowl game and pressure still very high. Both games are very winnable, but they're also losable. That would be a lot of pressure heading to Minnesota in the final week with possibly a bowl berth on the line for the winner.

I touch on this in my Freep column, but lets hold off on questioning the mental toughness of players. It's an easy narrative you have no physical way of disproving, but I'd like to think the last two games have shown the Spartans haven't packed it in. I have little doubt they'll come out ready to play against Northwestern. If anything, maybe the referee issue becomes a rallying point. It certainly was on Twitter.

As for that whole deal, I've seen a lot of opinions on it. The bottom line is this: Of course they have the right to say what they want, and some of their gripes may have been legitimate, but you never look good ripping the officials (except to your team's fanbase). The rest of the country was laughing at them, and it's a really bad look for MSU, especially after the Denard Robinson stuff earlier. NFL players get fined for what MSU players were tweeting about the officials. Kids will be kids, but I'm sure Dantonio has some sort of punishment in store for some of them.

I don't think a Twitter ban is a good idea. It doesn't look good in recruiting. It comes down to the standard your players have. USC puts the players' Twitter handles on the team depth chart. As Chip Kelly said, if you can't trust players on Twitter, how can you trust them on third down?

MSU stopped Nebraska on its final third down, until a flag came out.
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(Note: Stop saying Dantonio needs to be fired, or Connor Cook should start. Both things will not happen, because they'd be incredibly stupid decisions)

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