Stryker: Huskers party on after snatching victory from unbeaten Spartans

Category: Football
Postgame celebration
Players and fans celebrate after the improbable victory.
If you’ve ever watched a late-night party at Memorial Stadium, it’s like nothing else you’ve seen. If you were there in the gigantic old concrete cathedral Saturday night, you won’t soon forget it.

It was a scarlet soiree. The Red Sea pitched and rolled in time with the high-decibel music that echoed through the house. The student section rocked. The fans behind the Husker bench moved with the beat. The band boogied. Even the old folks in the West Stadium stayed up late and made a racket.

Nebraska’s fans did not quit on their players. Nebraska’s players did not quit on their fans. The result was a stunning 39-38 win over previously undefeated and No. 6-rated Michigan State. In the end, they all partied together for at least 15 minutes after Connor Cook’s final desperation pass sailed out of bounds, with dozens of Husker players facing the crowd and dancing on the bench, waving towels, spraying water bottles into the air and getting rid of accumulated frustrations that have dogged them since that Hail Mary pass came down in early September.

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The Huskers were celebrating more than ending Michigan State’s 12-game winning streak. More than their biggest fourth-quarter comeback win ever (actually, the fourth time a Nebraska team has overcame a 12-point deficit in the fourth quarter, most recently at Northwestern in 2012). They were celebrating more than the first win by an unrated Nebraska team over a Top 10 foe since 1977 (31-24 over Bear Bryant’s No. 4-rated Alabama in Memorial Stadium). They were celebrating more than a huge step toward bowl eligibility. Mainly, they were celebrating the infusion of meaning and hope into Mike Riley’s first year in Lincoln – a season that had largely been an unmitigated disaster.

Nebraska’s coaches did not quit either, although there were times both before and during this game when thousands of Husker fans thought it would help if they did. But that’s a topic for another week.

A big night for the Husker offense was the story. Tommy Armstrong Jr. got some revenge for a five-turnover game against the Spartans two years ago. He passed for 320 yards to move past Zac Taylor into the No. 2 spot on the all-time Husker passing yards list behind Taylor Martinez. He accounted for four touchdowns while moving into third place on the all-time total offense list (trailing Martinez and Eric Crouch). Nine of his 19 completions were to roommate Jordan Westerkamp.

It was a vintage Armstrong performance, ad-libbing big plays, making questionable decisions, then bailing himself out with more big plays. Armstrong’s biggest feat may have been outmaneuvering All-America candidate Shilique Calhoun and keeping his team in good field position by avoiding sacks.

Armstrong went 19-for-33 and two touchdowns. He threw two interceptions – one of which can be credited to offensive coordinator Danny Langsdorf.

This was a night for the Nebraska football fans, who showed up 90,000 strong, and stayed on their feet for large portions of the game. They were loud and effective. There were no empty sections. They gave more than a dozen recruits a big-time atmosphere to soak in.

This Husker crowd was dynamic. It went crazy when the Huskervision screens played Lincolnite Alex Gordon’s World Series highlights. It went crazier still when Gordon himself was introduced just moments later. Gordo was washed with hometown applause and “Let’s go, Royals!” chants. But mostly, the crowd was there to pick up the Huskers with with high-energy support.

In the game’s final seconds, the home crowd may have even helped influence the officials into ruling that Brandon Reilly had been pushed out of bounds on his winning touchdown catch. But in a season filled with heartbreak, it was about time the breaks evened up a bit for Riley and his team.

Armstrong and Westerkamp deserved this victory. Senior I-back Imani Cross, who pounded for 98 yards, many of them between the tackles, and ran like a warrior in the best game of his career, deserved it. Maliek Collins, who has played hard in tough circumstances this season, deserved it, as did Reilly, who made big plays when they were needed.

Most of all, Nebraska senior walk-ons Andy Janovich and Jack Gangwish deserved this night of celebration, for showing top-notch effort, pride and class all year long despite agonizing circumstances. Gangwish went out of his way to thank Husker fans who traveled to the Minnesota and Purdue games, and he has showed time and again that he’s a high-character young man, win or lose.

The Husker players overcame a boneheaded sequence by offensive coordinator Danny Langsdorf in the third quarter after Armstrong and Reilly teamed up on a 35-yard pass to the Michigan State 4-yard line. With the Huskers trailing 24-20 and a red-hot Cross ready and waiting in the backfield, Langsdorf could not resist the urge to get cute. He decided not to use Cross, his best weapon near the goal line. Instead, he chose a horizontal pass to Westerkamp, which was smothered for a 3-yard loss. A chorus of boos descended on the field. The next play? Another pass, which was intercepted by Michigan State’s Riley Bullough. More boos rained down on Langsdorf.

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Nebraska fans are among the most knowledgeable in sports, and they were on point. It was a well-deserved verbal slap in the face. Was it a teachable moment for Langsdorf in a season filled with botched teaching opportunities by the coaching staff?

Coincidence or not, Langsdorf and the Big Red ran the ball more often in key red zone sequences thereafter, and it resulted in a pair of Armstrong touchdown runs on bootleg action. Maybe Langsdorf learned that you can be creative in the run game. That would be the biggest positive coming from this game.

It was not a perfect performance by the crowd. When Michigan State scored with 4:16 remaining to take a 38-26 lead, a lot of people (I’d estimate 500 to 1,000) got up and walked out of the stadium – including the man sitting next to me. I hope they all enjoyed their relatively unimpeded walk to their vehicles, because they missed a pair of Nebraska touchdowns in the final two minutes, including a game-winning four-play, 91-yard drive that took 38 seconds.

Michigan State’s classy senior quarterback, Connor Cook, had a bad first quarter, including at least three drops by his receivers, but came back to play an outstanding second half. He broke MSU’s all-time record for touchdown passes, passing Kirk Cousins with 68. But both Cousins and Cook went down to defeat in Memorial Stadium. In fact, until this night, the Huskers’ 24-3 win in 2010 had been the last time NU beat a Top 10 foe.

Nebraska’s pass defense, which has been atrocious much of the season, showed some improvement. Defensive backs turned their heads and made plays on the football at times, and Jonathon Rose intercepted an underthrown Cook pass. It was only the Spartans’ fifth turnover of the season. It was a step forward. Can they sustain it against a lesser team in next week’s game at Rutgers? A pass rush would help a lot. They earned themselves a much larger and more dialed-in audience with their performance.

It’s worth noting that Nebraska played a penalty-free second half. Riley managed the clock well this time out. This time, it was Mark Dantonio and Michigan State who had clock management problems.

With a 38-33 lead and 1:47 to play, the Spartans could not run out the clock; the Blackshirts stuffed three running plays, using time outs after the first two. Then the Spartans gave the Huskers a gift by getting flagged for holding on their next run, which stopped the clock. The Huskers declined it, and the play clock was reset to 25 seconds, which Dantonio burned, accepting a delay of game penalty before punting the ball out of bounds at the Husker 9-yard line with 55 seconds remaining. When all the dust settled, Armstrong and the Husker offense had about 15 extra seconds to work with had there been no holding penalty on third down.

Just enough time to make reservations for a late-night celebration.

Formerly the sports editor at the North Platte Bulletin and a sportswriter/columnist for the North Platte Telegraph, Tad Stryker started writing for this website in 2008. You can e-mail him at [email protected].