It was bound to happen sooner or later.
But it didn't have to happen like THIS.
Michigan State's luck ran out in a 39-38 loss at Nebraska on Saturday in a game the Spartans first gave away with late miscues before having it snatched away by the refs.
Sparty led by 12 points with under two minutes to play, but Nebraska scored two straight touchdowns by exploiting MSU's porous secondary.
But the second of those touchdowns required an egregious missed call by the Big Ten officials, who ruled Brandon Reilly was forced out of bounds by Jermaine Edmondson, when the video shows clearly that he wasn't and that he should have been flagged for illegal touching.
Big Ten Network @BigTenNetwork
ICYMI: Your reaction, @B1Gfootball fans? Brought to you by @hotelsdotcom. https://t.co/VWX7nJFgEj11/8/2015, 4:11:41 AM
The refs reviewed the score but upheld their decision, sparking outrage on CFB Twitter and beyond. After a week spent debating the end of Duke-Miami, it seems we're in line for another seven days of discussing why we even have replay in the first place if we can't get basic, plain, unambiguous calls correct after reviewing them.
It turns out whether Edmondson shoved Reilly is unreviewable, per Fox Sports rules expert Mike Pereira, but the fact remains that Nebraska's winning touchdown came on a play that shouldn't have counted.
Mike Pereira @MikePereira
Thoughts on MSU/NEB..I did not think that the defender forced the receiver out of bounds. There was some contact but not enough.11/8/2015, 3:56:06 AM
Mike Pereira @MikePereira
Since there was some contact, replay can only get involved to see if the receiver went out of bounds.11/8/2015, 3:56:51 AM
Mike Pereira @MikePereira
Replay can't judge on the force of the contact. All they could do at that point was to check the receiver being out of bounds.11/8/2015, 3:58:06 AM
But the above fact is only part of the story.
Nebraska's winning touchdown shouldn't have counted, but that doesn't mean the Huskers deserved to lose.
Prior to Reilly's touchdown, they drove 61 yards in two plays to get from inside their 10-yard line to within scoring distance.
The ease with which they drove down the field, an ease that existed the entire second half, made Reilly's winning score feel inevitable. Here is Nebraska's official second-half drive chart:
- 6 Plays, 69 Yards — Touchdown
- 5 Plays, 52 Yards — Interception
- 10 Plays, 65 Yards — Touchdown
- 10 Plays, 53 Yards — Touchdown
- 4 Plays, 91 Yards — Touchdown
Only a foolish Tommy Armstrong Jr. interception kept Nebraska from pitching a perfect offensive half. It punted only once after its first possession of the game. Michigan State couldn't stop it because Michigan State, in its present form, can't stop anybody.
In that way, the controversial ending will bury the lede from this game. Sparty got what's been coming to it all season. It has flirted with disaster against Oregon, Purdue, Rutgers, Indiana and (most notably) Michigan but managed to survive with no losses.
It was ranked No. 7 in the College Football Playoff rankings, but anyone with eyes could see at least seven better teams out there.
CFB writer Matt Hinton, formerly of Grantland (RIP), said it perfectly:
Matt Hinton @MattRHinton
Regardless of the blown call on the winning TD, Michigan State still blew a double-digit lead with two minutes to play against a 3–6 team.11/8/2015, 3:46:29 AM
To their credit, MSU's players and staff have been graceful in defeat.
"That's not my job," head coach Mark Dantonio said when asked to explain the final call, per ESPN.com's Mitch Sherman. "My job is to coach."
"I don't think the officiating cost us the game at all," linebacker Darien Harris added, according to Sherman.
He's exaggerating, but that's still a healthy attitude.
The pass defense cost Michigan State the game. Dantonio's conservative play-calling—running on third down when one more first down would have clinched it—cost Michigan State the game.
The refs were just the nail in the coffin.
Prior to the week, Michigan State ranked No. 23 on Football Outsiders' S&P ratings. A sample of the teams that ranked higher includes Tennessee, Washington and West Virginia—all of which have at least four losses.
This is why statisticians talk so often about close-game luck. Sparty was undefeated and Tennessee had four losses, but on a play-by-play basis, they'd been equal.
Nebraska, on the other hand, had crumbled under poor close-game luck. It lost on a Hail Mary against BYU, in overtime against Miami and then by five combined points against Illinois, Wisconsin and Northwestern.
Narrative-driven writers made assumptions along the lines of "the Spartans know how to win" and "the Huskers can't get out of their way," but Saturday's result, like so many before it, exposes those opinions as bombast.
The truth is that these outcomes are more or less random. They come down to the bounce of a poorly snapped ball—something Sparty learned on the bright side at Michigan—or the review of a poorly called penalty.
When a team has a defense as bad as Michigan State's, it's bound to play a lot of close games. And when a team plays a lot of close games, it's bound to eventually lose one. Those are the laws of regression.
In that way, Michigan State was screwed not only by its secondary, Dantonio's conservative play call and the officials.
It was also screwed by math.
This loss was a long time coming.
So where does MSU go from here?
Strangely, it is not quite out of playoff contention.
If it beats Maryland next week and Ohio State after that, it still controls its Big Ten fate. Winning out and finishing 12-1 would give the Spartans a shot. The controversial nature of this loss, which came on such an obvious blown call, would not, one assumes, be lost on the CFP selection committee.
But can Sparty really win at Ohio State on Nov. 21? Michigan State's the best team left on OSU's schedule, but its secondary is still down RJ Williamson, Darian Hicks and Vayante Copeland—arguably its three best players.
Stranger things have happened than Sparty bouncing back in two weeks against a Buckeyes team that's also underachieved despite its record.
But for now, making the playoff seems like a pipe dream.