EAST LANSING, Mich. (AP) — Michigan State coach Mel Tucker said he showed his players video highlights of special teams units around the country making game-changing plays.
His 20th-ranked Spartans delivered a local adaptation on Saturday night.
With the offense sputtering, Jayden Reed returned a punt 62 yards for a tying touchdown with 3:47 left in regulation, and Chester Kimbrough’s huge defensive play in overtime helped send the Spartans to a 23-20 win over Nebraska.
Matt Coghlin’s 21-yard field goal on MSU’s overtime possession kept his team unbeaten and set off a celebration at Spartan Stadium. MSU has won nine of its last 11 night games and is out to its best start since the 2015 team opened 8-0.
Kimbrough’s interception came when he stepped in front of Samori Toure just as the ball was arriving on third down. Kimbrough’s ran it back deep into Nebraska territory but he couldn’t make it to the end zone.
“I was just playing my coverage, trusting my coverage and trusting my technique,” Kimbrough said. “We excelled it, man. I’m proud of my team.”
On Reed’s game-turning play, Nebraska wanted a directional punt to the right, but Daniel Cerni sent it left. Jalen Nailor, also back as a return man, acted as if he would field the punt as coverage closed in on him, but it was Reed who caught the ball. With most of the coverage on the other side of the field, Reed was able to find plenty of running room.
“That’s something that we’ve been working on,” Reed said. “We had a little decoy.”
Nebraska coach Scott Frost said punter Daniel Cerni was supposed to kick it to the other side of the field.
“We have guys at the university specifically for the reason to punt it,” Frost said. “And we had a couple of 10-yard punts that almost cost us, and right when we needed it the most we kicked it to the wrong side of the field. Some of the coverage guys didn’t see it and it cost us the game.”
The Spartans (4-0, 2-0 Big Ten) won despite not converting a first down in the second half.
“We didn’t have any business losing that game,” Frost said.
After trailing 13-10 at halftime, the Cornhuskers (2-3, 0-2) bowed up on defense. Payton Thorne completed just two passes in the second half, and Kenneth Walker III, who entered the game as the nation’s leading rusher, was bottled up all night.
Walker finished with 61 yards on 19 carries and set up the winning field goal with a 23-yard run, his longest of the game, on MSU’s first play in overtime.
This was Nebraska’s 14th straight loss to a ranked team, including the ninth in a row under Frost. The Huskers haven’t beaten a Top 25 opponent on the road since 2011.
Martinez left the game for one series in the first quarter after two defenders tackled him hard on a running play on the Huskers’ opening possession. He completed 24 of 34 passes for 248 yards and ran 19 times for 59 yards and two touchdowns.
Nebraska: There were too many unforced errors by the Huskers. Nebraska had four false start penalties in the first half and Martinez fumbled the ball away in the second half.
Michigan State: After squandering scoring opportunities in the first half, the Spartans couldn’t create enough chances after halftime. But there were just enough heroics in the end.
Losses by No. 14 Iowa State and No. 18 Wisconsin mean Michigan State should move up. The fan base would love a jump over rival Michigan, as the No. 19 Wolverines struggled in a 20-13 win against Rutgers.
For the second time this season, the Spartans completed a flea flicker for a touchdown.
Thorne got the pitch-back from Walker and found Reed for a 35-yard score in the second quarter.
The same trio combined for a 75-yard touchdown on the first play of the 42-14 win against Youngstown State on Sept. 11.
Michigan State defensive end Drew Beesley left the game in the second quarter with a lower-leg injury. He returned to the sideline in a walking boot. Tucker said he would be evaluated on Sunday.
Nebraska: Hosts Northwestern on Oct. 2.
Michigan State: Hosts Western Kentucky on Oct. 2.
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