EAST LANSING, Mich. — It won’t come easily. That much we should have known. Nebraska’s quest to win the Big Ten West took a huge hit Saturday at Spartan Stadium as Michigan State upset the Huskers 20-17.
The Spartans, in snapping a six-game skid, put an end to Nebraska’s three-game winning streak, its first since 2016. Coach Matt Rhule’s first team falls behind in a four-team race for the division crown, but Nebraska (5-4, 3-3 Big Ten) remains positioned to attain bowl eligibility for the first time since 2016.
MSU (3-6, 1-6) pitched a second-half shutout until the final four minutes. The Spartans sacked Heinrich Haarberg seven times and pressured the sophomore quarterback repeatedly. The final sack, on third-and-7 from the Nebraska 25-yard line 1:48 to play, caused Haarberg to fumble — his third turnover of the afternoon — and all but iced the victory for Michigan State.
Here are my initial thoughts:
The path to go bowling remains
The pressure is on for Nebraska as it returns home to face Maryland before a closing stretch against Wisconsin and Iowa. Bowl eligibility is a big thing for the Huskers. It would mean more practice in December. It would allow Rhule to take momentum into a key period for recruiting, even with most of the 2024 class secured. It would keep the Huskers in Lincoln after final exams and maintain continuity in training and nutrition.
It would let Nebraska fans feel good again around the holidays and stay involved in discussions that don’t involve the coaching carousel.
Do the Huskers stick with Haarberg?
Haarberg threw two interceptions Saturday and lost the late fumble. He isn’t seeing everything in front of him, and he struggled with accuracy against the Spartans, finishing 12-for-27 for 129 yards. MSU appeared to confuse him with multiple looks in coverage.
Nebraska can’t entirely ride or die with Haarberg, despite all that he’s done to save the Huskers’ season after an 0-2 start. Understandably, Rhule and offensive coordinator Marcus Satterfield are hesitant to go to Jeff Sims, but options do exist as they’ve also got Chubba Purdy on the sideline.
Unless Haarberg rebounds against the Terps at home in a hurry, another QB deserves a chance to spark the Huskers.
Turnovers a symptom of poor decision-making
Haarberg’s hesitancy and his problems with awareness were evident a week ago against Purdue when the 6-foot-5 QB took a huge hit on a fourth-quarter scramble. Saturday, he threw into the end zone late in the first half, seemingly without noticing a safety who stood in place and picked him off. A defensive holding penalty bailed him out, but Nebraska continues to play with fire when it came to ball security.
Late in the defeat, down 10 after a 30-yard completion to Malachi Coleman, Haarberg misfired badly on a target of tight end Thomas Fidone. It was picked off by Khalil Majeed to ruin the Huskers’ best shot to pull a fourth-quarter comeback.
Haarberg was also intercepted by safety Jaden Mangham in the first quarter as the QB threw deep for Alex Bullock. A Michigan State defensive back tripped on the play, leaving Bullock open near the goal line. The pass sailed way off course, likely leaving the wide receiver to appear more uncovered than if Haarberg had thrown on target. Still, it was a touchdown opportunity missed.
The pick served as a good punt on third-and-17 from midfield. But a turnover is a turnover. Haarberg has thrown six interceptions in his five Big Ten games. Nebraska sits at minus-12 in turnover margin for the season.
An uncomfortable, unexpected and ugly loss
Nothing felt comfortable for the Huskers. Everything required too much exertion — on offense, defense and special teams. Michigan State, except for a penalty-ridden stretch late in the first half, gave nothing away.
That ugliness has been a storyline all season for Nebraska, of course. But coming into East Lansing against an opponent that had lost six consecutive games, it stood to reason that the Huskers might possess an edge in confidence and use it to generate some breaks. While Nebraska did play a penalty-free first half and benefit from the Spartans’ mistakes to tie it at 10 with six seconds to play on Tristan Alvano’s 24-yard field goal, nothing came easy.
Runningback by committee, but lacking consistency
Nebraska’s running back situation looks like more of a hodge podge than at any time this season, largely because of injuries in September suffered by their top two backs. Josh Fleeks started Saturday. Anthony Grant started the second half. Emmett Johnson, the starter in the Huskers’ wins against Northwestern and Purdue, received a share of the reps, too. The Huskers rushed for 154 yards behind the three-headed back rotation.
Early in both halves, Johnson and Grant produced consecutive gains of more than 10 yards. Both times, Nebraska immediately went away from what was working. And both possessions ended without points.
The Blackshirts kept it a game
Nebraska showed some vulnerability on defense. But when Michigan State took possession in plus territory after a shanked punt by Brian Buschini that followed a 50-yard field goal in the third third quarter to put the Spartans ahead 13-10, the Blackshirts answered. True freshman Cameron Lenhardt and walk-on James Williams, the former scout teamer, contributed sacks in a three-play stretch. It kept the Huskers within striking distance to start the fourth quarter.
(Top photo: Mike Mulholland / Getty Images)