Michigan State's undefeated season is over.
In yet another improbable ending featuring the Spartans — and Huskers, for that matter — Nebraska benefitted from a controversial call to take a lead in the final seconds, a struggling group of Huskers handing the Spartans their first loss of the season Saturday night in Lincoln by a score of 39-38.
Michigan State went up by 12 points with a little more than four minutes remaining in the game on a Gerald Holmes touchdown run.
But Nebraska answered with not one but two lightning-quick scoring drives. Tommy Armstrong capped a two and a half minute drive with a one-yard touchdown run to make it a five-point game. And after forcing a Spartans punt, the Huskers took over with 55 seconds left and 91 yards to go. Armstrong hit Jordan Westerkamp for back-to-back huge gains of 28 and 33 yards to get Nebraska to the Michigan State 30-yard line.
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After Armstrong was nearly intercepted in the end zone, he found Brandon Reilly down the sideline for a 30-yard touchdown pass that put the Huskers in front, 39-38.
The play was riddled with controversy, as Reilly was out of bounds before coming back in bounds and catching the pass. The officials ruled that Reilly was pushed out of bounds by the Michigan State defender, which allowed him to catch the pass legally. But replay seemed to show that Reilly was not pushed out of bounds but merely drifted out of bounds. The call was ripped apart on social media, a huge break for Nebraska, which took the lead with 17 seconds to play.
After a strange decision to kick short to the Spartans, who needed just a field goal to win, Connor Cook tossed a 17-yard completion to set up one more play before a field-goal try. But Cook, a senior, held onto the ball for too long, and the clock expired as he threw it away, sealing the Huskers' improbable upset.
That final play aside, it was an otherwise great day for Cook, who passed for 335 yards and four touchdowns, carving up the notoriously abysmal Nebraska pass defense. He pitched two second-quarter touchdown passes to MacGarrett Kings and found Aaron Burbridge and Jamal Lyles for scores in the third quarter.
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But Michigan State's defense played poorly against a Nebraska team that already has six losses this season. Armstrong threw for 320 yards and two touchdowns — including 91 yards and a touchdown on that final 38-second drive — and rushed in for two more scores, three of those total touchdowns coming in the fourth quarter. The Huskers gained 499 total offensive yards on the night.
But the most important thing is the big picture, and the Spartans are now on the outside looking in when it comes to the College Football Playoff. The Nov. 21 matchup against Ohio State was supposed to be a battle of undefeateds, with the Big Ten East title, a spot in the Big Ten title game and potentially a berth in the Playoff all on the line. Perhaps not so much any more, as Michigan State would need a lot of help from inside the Big Ten and around the country to get into the Playoff.
Michigan State plays Maryland next weekend before the game at Ohio State and the regular-season finale against Penn State.
It was a big win for Mike Riley and Nebraska. Last weekend, the Huskers had 55 points dropped on them by Purdue and lost their sixth game before November for the first time in program history. Nebraska is still just one loss away from not reaching the postseason, but the calls for Riley's job might ease following a landmark win over a top-10 team.