This doesn’t seem like a good time for Nebraska to face its toughest opponent this season.
The Huskers are reeling after a 55-45 loss at Purdue last week. That came on the heels of another heartbreakingly close two-point loss to Northwestern, yet another game the 3-6 Huskers could have won but didn’t.
So now sixth-rated Michigan State comes to Lincoln for a 6 p.m. game Saturday. The Spartans have had close games as well — like a 24-21 win over Purdue, a 27-23 victory over Michigan on a freak special teams play to end the game and a 31-24 win over Rutgers.
But where the Husker have lost all those close games, the Spartans have won them. All of them.
Mike Riley said he understands this. The first-year Husker head coach would love to be able to go back and change those close losses into wins, but that can’t be done.
“I’ve said, and I think everybody knows this, but your season plays out on those games,” Riley said. “Michigan State has had those games. Iowa’s had those games. They beat Wisconsin 10-6, Wisconsin fumbles on the 1-yard line in the fourth quarter, but Iowa wins it a close game.”
Iowa and Michigan State lead the Big Ten in turnover margin. Nebraska is next to last ahead of only Maryland.
“They win the close games, and why is that?” Riley said. “They’re plus-10 in turnovers, more efficient. To me, as disappointing as that is, those kind of things are encouraging, and I know we can go there.”
There are at least some reasons for being optimistic from the Husker perspective heading into the Michigan State game because the Huskers have had some success against the Spartans in the past.
Nebraska won in East Lansing in 2012 on 5-yard TD pass from Taylor Martinez to Jamal Turner with just six seconds left in the game to give the Huskers a 28-24 victory.
The Huskers have lost the last two games to the Spartans, but have played them tough both times. In 2013, five turnovers made the difference in a 41-28 Michigan State win in Lincoln.
Last year, the Spartans dominated for more than third quarters and took a 27-3 lead into the fourth.
But the Huskers got two short TD runs by Ameer Abdullah and a 62-yard punt return for a touchdown by De’Mornay Pierson-El to pull NU to within 27-22.
The Huskers got the ball back, and a 43-yard pass from Tommy Armstrong to Alonzo Moore moved them to the Michigan State 37. Armstrong then launched a pass toward the end zone that just missed connecting with Moore.
That play could have given the Huskers a win. It definitely gives Moore some motivation for this season.
“I look at it often,” Moore said. “I was actually talking with my dad about it the other day.
“One thing that came across was that this is more than just a game. It’s personal because I left something on the field last year. I just want to give it my all this time. I still watch it to this day. I watch it a lot.”
Moore has developed into one of the Huskers’ best receivers this season. He has 17 catches for 256 yards and is tied for the most TD catches with Jordan Westerkamp with five.
Even though the losses have continued to pile up, Moore is still confident in what the Huskers can do.
“I think we match up well with anyone,” he said. “I think we can go out and play with anyone. It’s just about us. We focus on us. If we go out and play our best ball, the result will be good.”
Punter Sam Foltz said it doesn’t matter that the Huskers are 3-6 and the Spartans are 8-0.
“It’s going to be a highly competitive game (between) two good teams,” Foltz said. “They’re like 8-0 or 9-0, whatever they are. They’ve got a lot to play for. I think we’ve just got to go out there with the same mentality that it’s another opportunity for us to win another game. You know, try to put on a show and just try to finish this year out strong. That’s all we can really do at this point.”
Knocking off an unbeaten team would be a big positive in what’s been a rough season for the Huskers.
“It’s another big game in the Big Ten for us, another opportunity for us to go out and fight and keep battling,” Foltz said. “Obviously, being a 3-6 football team...it’s tough, but like I said, it’s going to be a fun game, fun atmosphere. I can’t wait to go out there and compete with the fellas.”
A win would also help rescue what’s been a rough home season for the Huskers. Fans have watched them lose in the closing seconds to BYU and Wisconsin, then watched as Northwestern went on a nine-play drive to run off the final 4:18 in a 30-28 Wildcat win.
“It would be great to win a game like this, here, at home, in front of all our fans,” Armstrong said. “Just having that confidence boost from this game, just going into next week, and then having a bye week and then having Iowa. They’re undefeated as well and they come in here and hopefully we get a win off that as well.”