With Nebraska turning over the ball five times and Connor Cook directing a game-breaking drive in the fourth quarter, the Spartans won 41-28 Saturday to take a two-game lead in the Legends Division with two games to play.
"Green Gatorade never tasted so good," Michigan State coach Mark Dantonio said, taking a big swig before addressing reporters.
"You've got an opportunity to come up with five turnovers. That's tough to lose a football game when that happens," he said.
Jeremy Langford ran 32 times for 151 yards and scored two touchdowns, and Keith Mumphrey caught a 27-yard touchdown from Cook after the Cornhuskers pulled within six points.
The Spartans (9-1, 6-0) beat the Huskers (7-3, 4-2) for the first time in eight all-time meetings. They can clinch the division with a win at Northwestern next week or a loss by Minnesota in either of its last two games. Michigan State plays Minnesota to end the regular season.
"I thought it was a really big statement against a team like Nebraska," Cook said. "They have a great defense top to bottom. It shows that we finish. Late in the game we're not going to give in. We're going to get stronger as the game goes on."
Michigan State converted Nebraska's five turnovers into 24 points on an afternoon the Spartans' defense proved fallible.
Big Ten leading rusher Ameer Abdullah ran 22 times for 123 yards for Nebraska. He went over 100 yards for the seventh straight game and eighth time this season and is the first player to do it against the Spartans.
The Spartans gave up 182 yards rushing and 392 total, both season highs. They had come into the game allowing an average of 43 yards rushing and 210 total.
"I thought our defense (played) a bit uncharacteristically because they were able to run the ball a little bit more than what we thought," Dantonio said. "Credit Nebraska on that. Abdullah is a great running back and our defense played really well. You come up with five turnovers, you're doing something right. Big win. Program win. Everything is in our corner."
Last year, Nebraska made up 10 points in the last eight minutes and won in East Lansing, Mich., on a touchdown with 6 seconds left. Even though they kept turning over the ball Saturday, the Huskers were still in the game well into the fourth quarter.
But when Mumphrey scored on a third-and-13 pass with 7:56 left — after holder Mike Sadler picked up a fourth-and-1 on a fake field goal — the Spartans could exhale while moving closer to their second appearance in the Big Ten championship game in three years.
Langford made it a 20-point game with a 37-yard burst on the Spartans' final possession. Nebraska scored a touchdown in the final seconds.
"We didn't lose that game because of a lack of effort or a lack of want-to," Huskers coach Bo Pelini said. "We couldn't overcome ourselves and obviously everybody is disappointed. It's hard to be minus-5 in the turnover category and win a football game over a quality team. We almost found a way, but that's a tall order."
Cook was 15 for 31 for 193 yards.
Nebraska's Tommy Armstrong Jr. was just 9 of 21 for 143 yards and two touchdowns, with one interception.
"I don't feel any different toward Tommy Armstrong than I did going into the game," Pelini said. "I think he's a heck of a football player, a tremendous young man, a leader, a competitor and that hasn't changed. He made some mistakes. He'll learn from them. He'll be a better football player down the road because of today."
Michigan State's five takeaways were the most in Dantonio's seven seasons with the Spartans.
Nebraska came into the game looking to build on some of the momentum it had generated the past two games despite losing three offensive linemen to injury and four-year starting quarterback Taylor Martinez to a foot problem.
Speculation about Pelini's future peaked after a loss at Minnesota. But then the Huskers beat Northwestern on a Hail Mary and ended Michigan's 19-game home winning streak last week to give them an opportunity to take control of the Legends Division with a win over Michigan State.
The Huskers ended up coughing up the ball four times in the first half, and Michigan State turned the turnovers into 17 points while going out to a 20-7 halftime lead.
The killer for Nebraska came with a minute left in the half. The Huskers were trying to run out the clock when Armstrong took off up the middle on third-and-11 from his 18. Defensive end Shilique Calhoun popped the ball loose and safety Isaiah Lewis recovered at the Nebraska 22. Three plays later Langford scored from the 6.
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