Chester Kimbrough intercepted Adrian Martinez’s pass in overtime and Matt Coghlin made a 21-yard field goal to keep No. 20 Michigan State unbeaten with a 23-20 win over Nebraska on Saturday night.
The Spartans (4-0, 2-0 Big Ten) won despite not recording a first down in the second half and totaling just 14 yards in the third and fourth quarters.
“We didn’t have any business losing that game,” Nebraska coach Scott Frost said.
The Spartans are out to their best start since the 2015 team opened 8-0 on their way to the College Football Playoff.
Kimbrough’s interception came on third down when he stepped in front of Samori Toure just as the ball was arriving. Kimbrough’s return went deep into Nebraska territory but he couldn’t make it to the end zone.
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MSU opted to have Coghlin kick his game-winning field goal on third down, setting off a massive celebration at Spartan Stadium.
“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.”
Michigan State’s special teams came up big late in regulation. Jayden Reed returned a punt 62 yards for a touchdown with 3:47 left in regulation to tie it 20-all.
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 Cornhuskers (2-3, 0-2) bowed up on defense. Payton Thorne completed just two passes in the second half. Kenneth Walker III, who entered the game as the nation’s leading rusher, was bottled up all night and finished with 61 yards on 19 carries. He 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. 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 went to the locker room briefly before returning to the sideline.
He completed 24 of 34 passes for 248 yards and ran 19 times for 59 yards and two touchdowns.
The Huskers had a chance for a touchdown on their first play in overtime. Levi Falck was running wide open in the end zone, but Martinez apparently didn’t see him and threw a short pass for little gain.
“The type of team that we have right now, knowing that this is a good football team and we’re close,” Martinez said. “That’s part of what makes it hurt really bad when you lose a game like this but also gives us optimism going forward.”
Nebraska: There were too many unforced errors by the Huskers. Nebraska committed 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.
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.
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.
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.
Nebraska: Hosts Northwestern on Oct. 2.
Michigan State: Hosts Western Kentucky on Oct. 2.