LINCOLN — It went without saying Saturday that the Nebraska defense was left to do some heavy lifting after the Huskers' offense and special teams combined for five turnovers.
Instead of saying it was too much for his unit to handle, however, NU defensive coordinator John Papuchis pointed out how the Blackshirts could have done it better:
Ľ By getting themselves off the field when they had the chance, instead of allowing Michigan State to convert 11 of 21 third downs.
Ľ By answering the turnovers by creating some of their own, instead of failing to force any for the third time in four games.
“People are going to have all their theories on why we lost the game,” Papuchis said, “but in terms of what we did defensively, we just didn't play well enough to win the game.”
Michigan State turned the five turnovers into 24 points, but those possessions started at the Huskers' 40-, 48-, 8-, 22- and 3-yard lines.
But the Spartans didn't truly put NU away until their 75- and 67-yard drives in the fourth quarter on which they converted on 4 of 5 third downs. And their only failed third down on those two possessions was followed by a fake field goal for a successful fourth-down conversion.
“We had trouble on third down for the first time in a long time,” NU linebackers coach Ross Els said. “I think it was more of our inability to get off the field on third down that hurt us probably more than anything. I was kind of surprised by that, actually.”
Nebraska trailed 27-21 and had Michigan State facing third-and-5 from its own 30-yard line early in the fourth quarter. Sophomore quarterback Connor Cook then kept MSU from punting with a 34-yard completion to Tony Lippett.
NU held Michigan State to 4 yards on third-and-5 three plays later, but the Spartans picked up 3 on fourth down as holder Mike Sadler took the snap on a fake field goal and ran straight ahead to move the chains. That drive ended when Cook connected with Keith Mumphery for a 27-yard touchdown pass on third-and-13.
“We just didn't make that play that was going to put us over the top,” NU linebacker Michael Rose said.
Nebraska had come into the game allowing opponents to convert just 27.1 percent of their third downs, ranking No. 3 nationally and behind only Michigan State in the Big Ten.
“We'd been doing a pretty good job on third down of getting off the field,” Rose said. “It did feel like we weren't getting the stops on third down that we're used to getting. And if you look in the box score, that probably can be one of the biggest stats of the game.”
The combination of the third-down success and the Husker turnovers helped the Michigan State offense control the football for 38:37 — longer than any other NU opponent this season. The Spartans finished with 361 total yards on 80 snaps.
“I know we kind of got tired,” NU defensive end Randy Gregory said. “I know I got tired. I know there were a lot of guys who got banged up. (But) we can't make excuses.
“I think we played pretty well. We just made a lot of mistakes here and there and it cost us.”
The most obvious miscues came with the turnovers, and the Husker defense fought off the first two by allowing only a field goal.
But Michigan State took the final three Saturday and jammed all of them into the end zone in a total of six plays.
“We could have responded much better than we did defensively,” Papuchis said. “I think it was probably a mixed bag of results in terms of how we handled those situations.”
Nebraska forced three punts coming out of halftime and pulled within 20-14. Then the last of the Husker turnovers put the Spartans at the 3-yard line with 5:30 left in the third quarter. They scored on the next play.
“It's tough, but whatever obstacles we have we've got to overcome,” NU defensive tackle Vincent Valentine said. “It doesn't matter if they get the ball on the 2. We've got to stop them if we can.”
* * *
Video: NU coach Bo Pelini after the Michigan State game:
Video: NU receiver Kenny Bell after the Michigan State game:
Video: Sam McKewon's postgame analysis: