With a bye this week, Nebraska will have some extra time to ponder what could have been and what could be.
A fourth-quarter rally that came up short in a 27-22 loss at No. 8 Michigan State on Saturday night left coach Bo Pelini rejecting the notion of a moral victory and his players hankering for another crack at the Spartans in the Big Ten championship game Dec. 6.
“Definitely, if we take care of our business, I don’t see why we can’t get there,” cornerback Josh Mitchell said. “They’re a good team, so I see them getting there, too, so it would be a nice little rematch.”
The Cornhuskers (5-1, 1-1) play at resurgent Northwestern in two weeks, and there are big West Division road games at Wisconsin and Iowa in November. Michigan State (4-1, 1-0) has a manageable schedule until it hosts Ohio State on Nov. 8 in a game that could decide the East Division.
Meanwhile, the Huskers will address areas that were exposed by their toughest opponent to date.
The offensive line will get a long look after allowing five sacks and failing to create running room for Ameer Abdullah.
Left tackle Alex Lewis had a couple penalties, left guard Jake Cotton fell over backward in a failed attempt to avoid a false start, and center Mark Pelini twice snapped the ball before quarterback Tommy Armstrong Jr. was ready.
“It was pretty obvious,” Bo Pelini said of the line’s struggle. “It surprised me. We didn’t play well enough the whole game. We didn’t play well enough in the second half, either. Give Michigan State credit. They took it to us up front. It wasn’t blitzing or scheme. They outplayed us.”
Abdullah netted 45 yards on 24 carries, a 1.9-yard average, and the Huskers totaled only 47 yards on the ground. That was the fewest since Southern California held them to 31 rushing yards in 2007.
“I put the lack of running game on myself. I didn’t hit the creases where I needed to, and that’s on me,” said Abdullah, whose Heisman Trophy campaign was on its biggest stage of the season.
Nebraska converted 3 of 15 third downs, and Armstrong was 20 of 43 for 273 yards with two interceptions.
Still, the Huskers nearly pulled off what would have been their greatest comeback after entering the fourth quarter down 24 points.
Nebraska’s defense allowed 257 yards in the first half and 165 in the second, forcing five punts and three three-and-outs after half. Better than half the Spartans’ second-half yards came on one drive that resulted in a touchdown.
“Defensively, we played well enough to win this football game,” Bo Pelini said.
It was a five-point game after freshman Demornay Pierson-El went 62 yards for his second punt return for a touchdown this season. The Huskers got the ball back with 1:07 left and drove to the MSU 37 but couldn’t score the go-ahead touchdown before Marcus Rush intercepted Armstrong.
“We lost the football game. I don’t care whether it was by 30 or whatever it was,” Bo Pelini said. “I’m not into moral victories.”
Neither is Armstrong, who already is planning on another game against Michigan State when the stakes are higher.
“Honestly, it’s not the last time they’re going to see us, I can promise you that,” Armstrong said. “We plan on going 11-1 and making the Big Ten championship. We plan on seeing MSU again.”