EAST LANSING - It was supposed to be a game defined by defense.
Sure, Nebraska came in with arguably the Big Ten's best offense, leading the conference in total offense at nearly 500 yards a game and scoring offense with just under 40 points per game. But this was supposed to be a classic offense vs. defense battle. Especially when you considered that MSU entered Saturday's heartbreaking loss - MSU fourth setback of the season by four points or less - with equally impressive numbers, but on the defensive side of the ball.
The Spartans (5-5, 2-4 Big Ten) began Saturday's 28-24 loss tops in the league in total defense, rushing defense and scoring defense.
By the end of the game, the Cornhuskers had lived up to their end of the bargain with 473 yards of total offense. But it was MSU that nearly wrecked Nebraska's plan for offensive dominance with what could be considered their best overall offensive performance of the season after finishing with 361 yards against a quality opponent.
The Spartans had put up more impressive numbers on offense - like the 410 it used in coming back to beat Indiana back on Oct. 6 - but that wasn't a team the caliber of the No. 21 Huskers (7-2, 4-1).
Junior running back Le'Veon Bell's performance alone put himself at the top of this week's Big Ten Offensive Player of the Week list.
His 188 rushing yards on 36 carries, which included two touchdowns, gave MSU a huge advantage against a Nebraska Blackshirts defense that was already surrendering 176.3 yards a game on the ground.
And when you consider the fact that MSU finished Saturday with 238 total yards on the ground, things looked even better after adding the 123 passing yards the Spartans received on just nine completed passes from junior quarterback Andrew Maxwell.
But as much as those numbers favored a Spartan victory, they still weren't enough for a team in search of one more victory with two games left to become bowl eligible.
"I thought we played pretty well offensively,'' said MSU coach Mark Dantonio, searching for additional positives amidst another emotionally-draining loss. "There are things we're going to look at and say, we wish we put up (but) I thought we made some plays.''
But 'some plays' on Saturday and for much of this season, considering what's at stake every week in conference play is not good enough to get it done in the victory department.
"Of course, it's emotional,'' said Fowler, who finished with three catches for 28 yards and has shown marked improvement over the past few weeks. "We've lost four games, very close, where we've played almost 90 percent of the way good and we didn't finish. So we've got to get that finishing aspect down.''
But time is running out on MSU's chances to finish 100 percent, especially for the Spartans seniors, who must be feeling the pinch of the closing stretches of their Spartan careers. That's why you could here the urgency and anguish in the voice of fifth-year seniors like starting guard Chris McDonald, who moved forward in the accountability department after Saturday's disappointment.
"The offense, we had a couple of opportunities to take it down there and end the game and we couldn't do it,'' said McDonald, who joined with four other guys on the line that had finally practiced this week without any lineup changes. "I put that on our shoulders, it's our fault. We need to be backing up the defense. They have always been helping us in games and this game I thought the offense was stepping up. We just need to finish strong.''
There's that theme again, finishing, but for Fowler and fellow wideout Tony Lippett, the key to finishing may be in starting stronger. So while the offense looked much better against Nebraska, no one is ready to accept the idea that MSU's offense can't be even better before season's end.
"Yes, we will build on it. Certainly, like last week (at Wisconsin), there are positives. We had opportunities in the redzone and we got a couple, but we needed more,'' offensive coordinator Dan Roushar said. "(So) there are things we will address with the guys, we will highlight the positives and we will look to improve on the things we are not doing well enough.''
Both Fowler and Lippett have their suggestions when the Spartans reconvene to prepare for the Wildcats in two Saturdays on how MSU's pass offense can get even better - with the use of more end-arounds.
"I feel like that too. It's like catching a hitch route at the beginning of the game. It gets you going. It's like turning around and handing the ball off to Le'Veon. The more he gets it, the more it gets him going.'' said Lippett, who caught his first career touchdown in spectacular fashion, hauling in a 46-yard pass from Maxwell while being sandwiched between two Nebraska defenders. "For us run an end around or something like that, just so that we feel comfortable for the next play. And if the next play's a pass, we're feeling good. That just boosts our confidence a little bit more from where it's already been.''
While the Spartans will have to chalk up Saturday's loss to Nebraska as another tough step in an unforgiving learning curve the has defined the season, there's no doubt that Saturday's output is something to build on as MSU takes a week off before returning to face Northwestern on Nov. 17 in the final home game of the season before closing at Minnesota on Nov. 24.
"I knew that (the offense was) due to get it clicking. We were clicking last week (at Wisconsin) in the fourth quarter and in overtime,'' Bell said. "We were moving the ball the way we were supposed to the whole season and Maxwell is more comfortable with the offensive line who did a great job opening up holes. There are still some things we have to work on (and) there is a lot of improvement, needed still, but we are going to get better. We are going to take this bye week, get out bodies rested and get ready for Northwestern.''
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