Taylor Martinez threw the pass. Darqueze Dennard threw his hand at the ball to break it up. The referee threw the flag. And Mark Dantonio threw his arms in disgust. That sums up the final pass interference call and another in a season of bad breaks against snake-bitten MSU.
That penalty and the personal foul call on Johnny Adams, negating Dennard’s potential game-sealing 96-yard interception-for-a-TD, will be two of the most controversial and dissected moments from the Spartans’ 28-24 loss to Nebraska.
Gerry Dinardo on the Big Ten Network said this about those two plays: “The officials had a lot to do with the outcome of this game.” But they were two of nine penalties for 100 yards against the Spartans, which MSU coach Dantonio pointed to as a defining problem in the game.
Here’s Rexrode’s game story and notes from Saturday’s game, which sent MSU to 5-5 and 2-4 in the Big Ten as the Spartans head into their bye week. Those conference losses are by a combined total of 10 points. Graham Couch looks at the emotional stomach punch of yet another close loss and grades the Spartans’ performance.
Here are a few of my random thoughts after watching back a bit of the game and some of those key moments:
* JOHNNY ADAMS PERSONAL FOUL: If you think Nebraska WR Kenny Bell couldn’t have caught up to Dennard and was too far out of the play, you’re wrong. In fact, Bell chased down and tackled the MSU cornerback on Dennard’s first interception of game, so he most certainly showed he was capable of coming from across the field to make a play as a defender after a turnover. Also, teammate Adams – after what appeared to be a clean block against Bell on replays – eventually raced side-by-side with Dennard into the end zone. I don’t believe there would have been a flag if that was a tight end throwing a similar block on a defensive back after a wide receiver catch-and-run in a similar situation.
Said MSU defensive coordinator Pat Narduzzi: “Talk about taking it out of the kid’s hands and putting it into someone else’s. It was a heck of a return by Darqueze. We said we were going to score today and we thought we did. We got late flags 25 yards from the ball. We will see it. I don’t know what the problem was, but I guess you are not allowed to block on defense. You can only block on offense.
“Players play. Coaches coach. Officials try to officiate the best they can. I guess they saw it that way. From the booth, I didn’t see it that way.”
* ON DENNARD PASS INTERFERENCE CALL: The referee made blind call from behind the play. Inexcusable. No other officials with a better view called it, and they didn’t step in to overrule it as they did when Adams attempted a soccer flop late in the first half, drew a flag, then saw it picked up after a discussion.
On the play, Dennard had firmly established inside position and wasn’t using his hands to bump and push receiver Bell. Bell actually tried to slip his arm under and through Dennard’s, the only hand-to-hand contact on the play, and the ref threw the flag a second later.
“The interference call, you guys make the call,” Dantonio said. “Everybody will make the call on that one.”
* ON TAYLOR MARTINEZ: Played exceptional, with both his arms and legs. On his second touchdown run, he exploded through the MSU defense and left Marcus Rush, Denicos Allen, Max Bullough and Isaiah Lewis all on the ground after missing attempts at dive tackles that weren’t even close. That’s a defensive end, two linebackers and a safety.
Narduzzi said Martinez is faster than Michigan’s Denard Robinson. The QB finished with 205 yards rushing, but don’t discount the plays Martinez made via the pass – a significant area of improvement for the senior this season. He kept drives alive and had a pair of TDs among his 160 yards passing.
* ON THE KURTIS DRUMMOND PENALTY: MSU’s free safety zoomed up from the secondary as Martinez appeared to be tucking the ball to run. He instead pulled it back and lobbed an incompletion, getting rid of the ball just as Drummond hit him with a squared-up hit on their shoulder pads. But, again, a referee obscured from the play threw the flag for a personal foul as Martinez’s head snapped from the force of the collision.
The call was labeled “a high hit” when the penalty was announced, but not a helmet-to-helmet or hands-to-the-face call. Regardless, the ref who threw the flag was not in position to make that call. But Dantonio admitted that his players should know better, especially with how crews around the country have erred on the side of safety when making those decisions.
“You know, I’ve said this in here before: Everybody’s trying to do the very best they can do out there. I don’t think anybody’s out for Michigan State, I don’t think anyone’s out for Nebraska. It’s an instinctive game and it’s instinctive for officials, too,” Dantonio said. “So all I can tell you is the guy running up there to make the hit (Drummond) should have been in coverage. He should have been back there 15 yards away. He had no business being up there on a quarterback sack. So, unforced error on our part.”
* ON MSU’S OFFENSE: The Spartans managed just 26 total yards and only one first down on their final 11 plays after taking a 24-14 lead to start the final period. There were two three-and-outs in there in which MSU gained just 5 yards on the first and none on the second. They were forced to punt three times, which prompted junior WR Bennie Fowler to say after the game that they “weren’t able to finish the game.”
“We had an opportunity to run the clock out, and they stopped us there and we punted the ball,” Fowler said. “We finished about 95 percent of the time. We still had opportunities where we should have finished more.”
* ON MSU’S CROWD: Dantonio was asked about his Facebook post that pleaded for MSU fans to show up for the game and whether he “was pleased with the turnout.”
“I was pleased with the crowd,” he said, pausing for a split second and adding for emphasis, “the enthusiasm of the crowd.”