Nebraska came into the day with its Big Ten destiny in its own hands. After giving up 41 points to the Michigan State Spartans, the Cornhuskers are now forced to focus on other possible season outcomes as the Spartans—undefeated in Big Ten play—hold a commanding lead with two weeks remaining.
Five turnovers ended up sinking the Huskers on their home field today, but it wasn't the only negative takeaway from today's loss. There were also some positives to build upon, and it falls to Bo Pelini, his staff and his players to start building towards what could still be a very productive January bowl season.
Here are the 10 things we learned about the Huskers in their loss to the Spartans.
You can bet we'll be touching on this theme again and again as we sift through Nebraska's loss to MSU, but it's important enough to deserve its own mention.
The long and short of it is this: it's incredibly difficult, if not impossible, to win a football game when you turn the ball over five times while forcing no turnovers. That's exactly what the Cornhuskers did.
Right from the first possession, Nebraska was shooting itself in the foot. Turnovers led to point after point for the Spartans. Michigan State's defense is strong enough to beat most teams on most days—without five turnovers.
For Nebraska, it's clear there isn't enough offensive firepower to overcome five turnovers, especially against a strong defense like it faced in MSU.
Sure, there were plenty of negatives to take away from the loss to Michigan State, but Ameer Abdullah isn't one of them.
With 22 rushes and 123 yards, Abdullah is the only player to reach the 100-yard mark against Michigan State this season. His 5.6 yards per carry is also incredibly impressive against the nation's No. 1 rushing defense, which until its visit to Lincoln, was giving up just 43.4 rushing yards per game.
Hopefully, we'll all get another year of Abdullah's exploits, because he has a real chance of being one of the nation's top running backs in 2014.
There's going to be a lot of talk about the play of Tommy Armstrong, and for good reason. Before we get to his turnovers, let's look at his stats.
Armstrong was a paltry 9-of-21 for 143 yards, one touchdown and one interception. On the ground, Armstrong had nine yards on five carries.
There's absolutely nothing spectacular about those numbers. There's nothing even good to point out.
But what really killed his team was the fact that he not only threw that one pick, but fumbled the ball numerous times, eventually losing three of them. After committing four turnovers himself, he'll likely face a ton of scrutiny from fans and pundits alike this week.
And at this point, it's probably deserved.
There's no question that Kenny Bell has been an important part of Nebraska's passing game. His 385 receiving yards are second most of any Husker this season, and his catching ability appears to be, at times, unmatched.
But against Michigan State, Bell was lined up opposite some of the nation's top defenders, particularly Darqueze Dennard. Even though Bell frequently found himself in one-on-one coverage, he was unable to fight off some lock-down coverage applied by Dennard.
When Bell did get his hands on the ball, Dennard was often able to knock it out of his hands.
Bell still had more receptions (seven) than any other Husker but was held to just over 11 yards per catch—nearly two yards below his season average. While Bell can still improve and will easily be the go-to top receiver in 2014, we have some concerns about his abilities to become an every-down threat against the conference's top teams.
Sam Burtch had his biggest contribution to date for the Cornhuskers. With 86 yards on five receptions, Burtch led the team in yards while averaging over 17 yards per catch.
Not bad for a sophomore who had just five receptions and 62 yards coming into today's game.
Burtch's contributions are important because it belies the depth Nebraska is developing at the wideout position. Rather than a grouping of "Quincy Enunwa plus a couple," the Cornhuskers are developing a receiving corps that will be able to spread opposing secondaries thin from sideline to sideline.
It's also important to note that Burtch was capable of stepping up when upperclassmen like Enunwa are struggling (Enunwa had zero receptions against Michigan State).
While all of this may be little comfort on the heels of a loss, it should give Nebraska fans some solace in the future prospects of their team.
There were plenty of opportunities for Nebraska—or any team—to roll over when faced with such adversity as we saw against Michigan State. Fumble after fumble, point after point, Michigan State built its lead and never relented.
But despite appearing to try very hard at times not to win the game, the Cornhuskers still found themselves with a chance to close the gap—and even take a lead—well into the fourth quarter before Michigan State pulled away late.
There's plenty of credit to spread around for that. First, the coaching staff, from Bo Pelini on down, should be commended for keeping the team in a position to win, even when every break in the game seemed to have a green tint to it.
The players, too, deserve credit for buying into that philosophy. Even though it didn't pay off against Michigan State, it did the previous week against Northwestern and it certainly will again at some point in the future.
Refusing to quit and going in for the kill are two very different things, however.
Nebraska did a fine job keeping its head above water for most of the game. But when it came to taking the fight to the other team, the Cornhuskers couldn't seem to turn any momentum into massive blows against the Spartans.
Michigan State, for all of the accolades showered on its defense, doesn't have the strongest offense in the world. MSU gave the Huskers plenty of opportunities to take control of the game, but for a variety of reasons—including the aforementioned five turnovers—that never happened.
Refusing to quit and possessing that killer instinct is what separates good teams from championship teams.
When Taylor Martinez went down to injury, the seemingly obvious choice was to go with Tommy Armstrong at quarterback. OK, so maybe it wasn't so obvious, but still, that was the choice.
But after another less-than-impressive performance, even Bo Pelini has to be wondering if it isn't time for a change towards Ron Kellogg.
It's difficult to use his stats against Michigan State as a measuring stick, as it was the final drive of the game when everything was well out of reach for the Huskers, but Kellogg did complete eight passes on 11 attempts on that drive—compared to Armstrong's nine completions on 21 attempts during the other 58 minutes of the game.
Strictly from a touchdown-to-interception standpoint, Armstrong now has seven TDs to seven interceptions. Kellogg's ratio stands at four-to-one. Kellogg also completes almost 15 percent more of his passes than does Armstrong.
Isn't it about time Kellogg be given his chance as his senior season comes to a close?
When you hear about the Nebraska Black Shirts, you're supposed to think of a suffocating, intimidating defense that can stop any offensive attack a team can throw at it. What we saw instead today was a defense that gave up 41 points to the No. 10 overall offense in the Big Ten.
Okay, we'll admit that things have gotten quite a bit better from those 600-plus-yard embarrassments we saw back in September. We won't be throwing around "pink shirts" or any sort of demeaning or belittling moniker at this bunch, as they've clearly made some great strides over the course of the last seven or so games.
But is this defense yet deserving of the honored "Black Shirts" Nebraska defense nickname?
When Nebraska first entered the Big Ten almost three full seasons ago now, there were more than a small handful of Nebraska fans who thought the conference would have a hard time handling the big boys of the Big 12's former North Division. The last three seasons have since been eye-opening.
After a few humbling losses in 2011, Nebraska quickly earned a divisional title in 2012—only to suffer a humiliating defeat at the hands of Wisconsin in the Big Ten championship game. In 2013, Nebraska will again fail to win a divisional title, and the Cornhuskers seem to still be searching for a Big Ten identity.
The 2013 Cornhuskers aren't going to win a conference or divisional title. That's not the end of the world. But if this team can find an identity of its own to play, it may quickly find the season has concluded with little to show for its effort.