Giving up 28 unanswered points to a healthy Oregon team on the road temporarily knocked Michigan State out of the national conversation a month ago.
The Spartans defense made sure it didn’t happen again.
Though Michigan State’s 27-22 win over Nebraska was closer than it needed to be, the Spartans defense proved again it is the cornerstone for a team with lofty postseason aspirations.
Nebraska ended the game on a 19-0 run and had the ball in Michigan State territory with a chance to take a lead in the final 1:07, but the Spartans held thanks to a Trae Waynes interception to seal the game.
Despite a fourth quarter outburst, this was the signature defensive performance of the season for Michigan State so far.
Michigan State dared Nebraska to win with the pass and the result was two interceptions and five sacks. Of Nebraska’s first 12 possessions, eight ended in punts. Three ended in turnovers.
Ameer Abdullah, who entered the game with back-to-back 200-yard rushing games, was held to a season-low 45 yards on 24 carries. The run game that steamrolled Miami and Illinois managed just 1.3 yards per carry.
“Coming in, we knew Abdullah was a great back,” Michigan State linebacker Riley Bullough told the media. “He's quick, he was going to try to cut back on us, so we preached all week that we all got to swarm to the ball. We all know schematically what we want to do, and I think for the most part we achieved it. The big thing was we wanted to get heads to the ball, and I think we did that.”
After the win, though, Michigan State may still have questions.
The Spartans let off the gas in the fourth quarter, allowing Nebraska to claw its way back on two touchdown drives and a punt return for a touchdown. The game was needlessly dramatic, and combined with Oregon’s come-from-behind win, Michigan State may wonder if it can hold up for a full four quarters against a quality opponent.
The dominance of the defense early also masked some issues on offense. Quarterback Connor Cook was a mere 11-of-29. The Spartans turned the ball over three times, but Nebraska converted none of its takeaways to points.
That brings up the next question: Who on Michigan State’s remaining schedule will truly challenge the Spartans if they slip up again? There’s a Nov. 8 home date against Ohio State and then, what? Michigan? Maryland? Penn State?
“It is good that you have a close game,” Michigan State coach Mark Dantonio told the media. “I don't like them, but it's good to have a close game and win it in the end.”