EAST LANSING, Mich. – Michigan State may need a little more time to get over this one.
The Spartans have an open date next weekend, and any positive vibes they had built at the start of November were dashed when Saturday's game against Nebraska slipped away in the final seconds. Michigan State seemed to have control on a few occasions in the fourth quarter, but ended up blowing a 10-point lead in a 28-24 loss.
"All I can tell you is that you've got to keep pushing. You can't flinch," Michigan State coach Mark Dantonio said. "I see life every day for people. Life's tough for everyone."
Taylor Martinez threw a 5-yard touchdown pass to Jamal Turner with 6 seconds left to win it — and that was Nebraska's first lead of the game. The ending was particularly bitter for the Spartans because of a disputed pass interference call on Darqueze Dennard that gave the Cornhuskers the ball at the Michigan State 5-yard line. If the third-down play had stood as an incompletion, Nebraska would have had to settle for a tying field goal attempt.
But that wasn't the only penalty that helped swing the outcome. With the Spartans ahead 24-14 in the fourth quarter, Dennard intercepted a pass at his own 4 and weaved his way back for what looked like a long touchdown return. It was nullified by a personal foul during the return on Michigan State's Johnny Adams.
That was the first of several instances in which the Cornhuskers were on the ropes but managed to respond. Nebraska was also stopped on fourth down with 3:12 remaining and the score 24-21, but Michigan State couldn't run out the clock.
After starting the season with Rose Bowl dreams, the Spartans (5-5, 2-4 Big Ten) still need another win to become bowl eligible. After a weekend off, they host Northwestern before finishing the regular season at Minnesota.
"You can't leave plays out on the field, you can't have unforced penalties, and I feel awful for everybody," Dantonio said. "We're going to take a deep breath, then we're going to exhale, and we're going to get back to work. ... We're going to make sure that our players get a chance to get away from football for a couple days."
After losses to Ohio State, Iowa and Michigan, the Spartans had become an afterthought in the league title race, but they won at Wisconsin and had a chance to shake up the Legends Division race a bit with a victory over Nebraska.
All of Michigan State's conference games this year have been decided by four points or fewer. Unlike the last two seasons, the Spartans have lost quite a few of those close games.
On Saturday, their offense was still reliant on running back Le'Veon Bell, who ran for 188 yards and two touchdowns. Defensively, the Spartans allowed too many big plays.
And then there were the penalties — nine of them for 100 yards. Michigan State has averaged 59.7 yards in penalties per game this year, the third-worst mark in the Big Ten. Of course, Ohio State and Nebraska have been flagged for even more yards, and those teams are doing just fine.
After all their high hopes a couple months ago, the Spartans are now playing to avoid the indignity of missing the postseason entirely. They can still finish strong and win a bowl game — but there's a sense the biggest games of this year have already been played.
"You have to move forward. I feel like I say that after all our close losses that come down to the end," quarterback Andrew Maxwell said. "As painful as it is, and how heartbreaking it is, it doesn't end the season. This is not the last game."