From here on out, Nebraska’s Cornhusker football team will play for bowl position.
The Huskers’ hopes of returning to Indianapolis for the Big 10 championship game literally hit the turf Saturday afternoon.
Four times, the Huskers lost fumbles to an opportunistic Michigan State team. Add an interception to that total and the Spartans were gifted with five Husker turnovers.
They converted those gifts into 24 points to hand the Huskers a 41-28 defeat. The loss also knocked the Huskers out of the race to win the Big 10’s Legend Division.
The performance of the Nebraska defense may well have been the biggest overlooked story of the game.
Despite two first-quarter turnovers, the Huskers’ defense held the Spartans to just three points.
Defensive end Randall Gregory and cornerback Ciante Evans each sacked MSU quarterback Connor Cook and Cook felt Gregory’s pressure all day long.
The defense got shackled with short fields after four of those turnovers. Two of those came inside the 10.
The Huskers’ Jordan Wester-kamp fumbled away a punt on the Husker 8 yard line in the second quarter that resulted in an MSU touchdown.
Another came in the third quarter from the Husker 3 after a fumble by redshirt quarterback Tommy Armstrong. That also resulted in an MSU touchdown.
But the most detrimental short field facing the defense came right before half with 1:10 left.
The Huskers just needed to run out the clock and go into halftime down by six, 13-10. Instead, Armstrong coughed the ball up on the Husker 18 and MSU put the ball in the end zone with 26 seconds left in the half to go up 20-7.
Despite all that, the defense kept the Huskers in the game all the way into the fourth quarter, trailing 27-21.
Offense generates three TDs
Trailing 10-0 in the first quarter, the Huskers got on the board when redshirt freshman quarterback Tommy Armstrong found sophomore wide receiver Sam Burtch all alone in the right flat. Burtch went in untouched for a 32-yard touchdown.
The Huskers answered the Spartans’ late first half touchdown early in the third quarter.
Less than four minutes into the second half, sophomore I-back Imani Cross split the Spartan defensive line and bolted 51 yards. His score pulled the Huskers within six, 20-14.
After trading possessions, the Huskers found themselves pinned against their own goal line when MSU downed a punt on the Husker 1.
That’s when fumble bug bit Armstrong again. This time the Spartans recovered his fumble on the Husker 3. One play later, the Huskers trailed 27-14.
Armstrong and the offense answered for his mistake when he drove the team down the field, hitting receiver Kenny Bell on a 38-yard scoring strike.
Bell made another highlight grab against an MSU defender, landing flat on his back in the end zone. His grab pulled the Huskers back within six, 27-21, going into the fourth quarter.
The Spartans got a break early on their next drive when an apparent Husker interception was instead ruled an incompletion.
They took advantage of the ruling, adding another score for a 34-21 lead.
The Spartans put the game away with two-first down conversions and a touchdown for a 41-21 lead.
The Huskers got a final score with 18 seconds left to make the final tally 41-28.
Pelini confident with QB
Armstrong received a vote of confidence Monday from coach Bo Pelini, who said the redshirt freshman would start at Penn State this week after his three-turnover performance against Michigan State.
“We still believe in Tommy and still think he’s going to be a really good football player for us,’’ Pelini said. “He’s young. He’s a freshman. He’s not going to be perfect. He was disappointed yesterday, but that experience will make him better down the line.’’
The 41-28 loss to the Spartans was the first in Armstrong’s six starts since he replaced the injured Taylor Martinez. Armstrong’s wins, however, have come against Championship Subdivision South Dakota State and four Big Ten teams with a combined conference record of 3-21.
Since he went 7 for 9 in the first half against Illinois on Oct. 5, Armstrong is just 42 of 91 (46 percent) with five touchdowns against seven interceptions and two fumbles.
Armstrong, with those seven picks, is tied with Illinois’ Nathan Scheelhaase for most in Big Ten play. But Scheelhaase has 233 pass attempts in conference games compared with Armstrong’s 100.
Armstrong had fumbles that gave Michigan State the ball at the Nebraska 22 and 3 and an interception on the Cornhuskers’ side of the 50. The Spartans converted two of the three turnovers into touchdowns.
“Mistakes killed us, and most of that was on me,’’ Armstrong said. “I’ve got to fix that. Most people say that it’s part of being a freshman. At the same time, I just think I’ve got to hold onto the football. Being a player is being a player. It’s not about what grade you’re in.’’
Pelini and offensive coordinator Tim Beck are handling Armstrong carefully. Pelini said Armstrong has a tendency to be extremely hard on himself. He wants Armstrong to learn from the mistakes but not dwell on them.
Linebacker Michael Rose, one of Armstrong’s best friends on the team, said the quarterback was extremely upset in the locker room after the game.
“People outside of our team are going to tear him down and tell him he’s this and he’s that and he cost us this,’’ Rose said. “That’s why we have to remain close and stay a tight-knit bunch.’’
Armstrong said it helps to know he has the support of teammates. That was conveyed to him in a text message he received from running back Imani Cross after the game.
According to Armstrong, the text read, “No matter if you’re a quarterback that throws 100 touchdowns and zero interceptions, or you don’t throw any touchdowns and 100 interceptions, I’m still going to trust you and I’m still going to have your back.’’
Pelini said fifth-year senior Ron Kellogg III could rotate in for a few series against Penn State, as he has in other games Armstrong has started. Kellogg didn’t play against Michigan State until the last few minutes, when the game was decided.
Pelini said Armstrong must not allow his poor performance against Michigan State to carry over when the Huskers return to practice this week or when they enter Beaver Stadium on Saturday.
“I think you’ll see him respond the right way,’’ Pelini said.
(Associated Press and staff reports were used to compile this story.)