Spartans’ defeat should serve as a warning to playoff contenders

Michigan State quarterback Connor Cook runs for a first down against Indiana during the first half on Saturday, Oct. 24, 2015, at Spartan Stadium in East Lansing, Mich. (Kirthmon F. Dozier/Detroit Free Press/TNS)

By Dan Escalona

Michigan State’s run of luck — and now its chance of playoff — was cruelly extinguished Saturday in Nebraska.

No longer the beneficiary of the good luck that had befallen them against Michigan, the Spartans were on the raw end of a controversial call in their stunning loss to the Cornhuskers.

Michigan State’s inability to close a winnable game should ultimately serve as a warning to the other playoff contenders that no opponent — and no lead — can be taken lightly until the final four is set.

A usually stout defense epically failed the Spartans in Lincoln, as the team now desperately needs a large force wind of good luck to have any chance at the College Football Playoff.

The Spartans gave up nearly 500 yards of offense to the Cornhuskers — the most they have given up all season. Above all, the defense failed to protect the lead of an offense that was in high-gear most of the day.

Saturday’s game was one of Michigan State’s most fluid offensive performances of the season as the offense gained 491 yards of total offense. Quarterback Connor Cook had a showcase game, throwing for 335 yards and four touchdowns with only one interception.

Running Back Gerald Holmes also contributed to the outpouring, going for 117 yards on 22 carries with a touchdown — his strongest game of the year.

The offense was arguably at its most potent through nine games until the final two minutes when the Michigan State defense shot itself in the foot.

Leading 38-26 after 4:16 mark in the fourth quarter, the most inopportune of letdowns occurred. The Spartans allowed Nebraska to cut the lead to five with 1:47 left. The Cornhuskers then got the ball back and stormed down the field to take the lead with 17 seconds left.

Spartans fans can of course focus the brunt of their ire on the officials following their decision on the go-ahead score. Wide receiver Brandon Riley caught Tommy Armstrong’s pass after briefly running out of bounds, which would normally be a penalty. Instead, the officials ruled that Riley was forced out of bounds — upholding the touchdown catch.

In retrospect, as the Big Ten has now admitted, the call was correct. Whether they like it or not, Michigan State fans must deal with the fact that their defense may have just ruined a run at the national championship.

Such is life in the treacherous maze that is the road to the CFP — a lesson those from East Lansing learned the hard way.

Saturday’s events seemed more suited for a time warp in an alternate universe where Michigan State’s offense had seized a victory before its defense got in the way.

Outside the fact that the Spartans’ defense came up short on the final two drives, thereby likely eliminating them from playoff contention, this loss has bigger implications on the current favorites for the playoff.

Michigan State’s untimely defeat should serve as a warning sign of looming danger for the nation’s top four squads.

The current leaders for the playoff — Ohio State, Clemson, Alabama, Baylor and Oklahoma State — should be wary of upcoming opponents, be they ranked or unranked.

These five teams, Ohio State, Clemson and Alabama particularly, still have difficult games against conference opponents remaining — even unranked ones like Illinois, Auburn and Syracuse. And of course, one can’t forget the remaining conference championship games.

Baylor and Oklahoma State still have to play each other, and whoever loses is likely out of the playoff discussion. The unpredictable nature of the Big 12 will still have a lot to say in deciding the fourth participant.

If Michigan State’s loss taught these top contenders anything, it should be that so much can yet occur before college football’s Central Committee officially decides which teams stay in the hunt for the sport’s biggest prize and which teams are sent to the proverbial garbage — or, in other words, a nonetheless prestigious bowl game.

So much is still up in the air, and if the leading contenders want to make things less so, they must avoid pulling a Michigan State.

Dan is a senior in Media.

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