Published Sunday, November 17, 2013 at 12:01 am / Updated at 1:13 am
Huskers play physical, but not smart

LINCOLN — Every chance he had last week, Nebraska's offensive coordinator made sure to remind his unit about Michigan State's physicality.

The Spartans would bring tenacity and relentlessness. They'd pop you and bruise you — film study proved it. Their aggressive style of play often overwhelmed opponents and led to their dominance.

Be ready, Tim Beck told his guys. Michigan State's intensity is what the Husker offense had to match.

Nebraska did that Saturday against the Spartans. But it wasn't enough in a 41-28 loss.

“Probably should have talked to them about playing smarter — because we didn't play very smart,” Beck said.

The five turnovers by Nebraska were the obvious story afterward, preventable miscues that handed Michigan State an early lead, overshadowed the Huskers' persevering mindset and spoiled a well-designed game plan that seemed to have the Spartan defense scrambling a bit.

Freshman Terrell Newby dropped an option pitch. Redshirt freshman Jordan Westerkamp fumbled a punt return. Tommy Armstrong misread a coverage on his interception, didn't secure the football on a quarterback draw and botched a snap with the team's second-string center.

Five giveaways that the Nebraska players and coaches struggled to explain after the game.

The Huskers spent all offseason working to become a cleaner, crisper offense, determined to eliminate the self-inflicted hurdles that last year prevented them from transforming into a consistently lethal scoring attack.

More attention to detail. More accountability. Higher standards. The veterans led the charge.

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Yet in the biggest game of 2013, Nebraska ended up reverting to its error-filled tendencies. Basic fundamentals were overlooked — because of in-game pressure, or the reputation of the Spartans, or just general absent-mindedness. The lack of focus ended up leading to major blunders, ruining possessions.

“When we wanted to, we moved the ball,” junior receiver Kenny Bell said.

The Huskers finished with more yards (392) than any other Michigan State opponent this year. They had 19 first downs, tying a season-high for an offense playing against MSU. They were the first team to rush for more than 100 yards against the Spartans, recording the second- and third-longest runs against them this year.

“I felt like up front, we were doing some good things,” Beck said. “We had them off balance.”

He thought that even when the Huskers had turned the ball over three times in the first quarter and trailed 10-0.

That's when injured senior captain Spencer Long gathered the entire offense on the sideline during a TV timeout. He told the group to settle down and relax.

“We've got to move forward. We're only down 10 points. Let's go,” said senior Cole Pensick, reciting Long's message.

The Huskers scored five plays later, cutting the deficit to 10-7 late in the first quarter. But their next possession stalled at midfield. Armstrong fumbled at the end of the second quarter.

And now, Nebraska's left trying to solve a problem that it's faced before. NU's potentially potent offense has to fix itself. The process started when the Huskers took the practice field Sunday, Bell said.

“You practice it, pretty much that's all you can do. Ball security during practice,” Bell said.

* * *

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:

Contact the writer: Jon Nyatawa    |   402-473-9585    |  

Jon Nyatawa has covered local sports, primarily Nebraska football and baseball, for The Omaha World-Herald since 2008.

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