EAST LANSING — Jayden Reed knew it almost immediately as the punt went in the air.
Michigan State football special teams coach Ross Els’ call for some chicanery would work. To perfection.
On a night where the offense vanished after halftime and the defense kept the Spartans in the game, special teams made play after play – highlighted by Reed’s tying punt return touchdown and Matt Coghlin’s winning field goal in overtime – to deliver a 23-20 victory and preserve a perfect 4-0 start to the season.
“We were showing our players examples of how special teams were impacting games across the country, whether it was punt, punt return, kickoff, kickoff return,” MSU coach Mel Tucker said. “And we knew that our return game was on the verge of exploding.”
Reed’s 62-yard score with 3:47 to play to tie the game at 20 will get the most attention, as it should. It was the Spartans’ first punt return for a touchdown since Keshawn Martin’s 57-yarder against Northwestern on Nov. 26, 2011.
It came as a gamble by Els based on the alignment of Nebraska’s coverage unit and rugby-style punter Daniel Cerni’s 34-yard, line-drive boot that may have been shanked in the wrong direction. In a two-returner formation, Jalen Nailor began waving his arms as the ball went airborne toward Reed. That diverted the coverage team to their right, while Reed caught the punt on the opposite side of the field and took off toward the end zone in front of Nebraska’s bench.
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Reed said he knew immediately he had a shot at taking it all the way for his first return touchdown since he was a freshman at Western Michigan in 2018.
“That was something we've been working on for about a few weeks now, something we had to execute. The coaches just called it,” Reed said. “We got a little decoy by Jalen Nailor that took the whole defense that way. So I give credit to coach Els and the rest of the special teams unit for opening that play up for me and being able to get into the end zone. …
“I mean, if the ball went right, I think it was 6 (points) regardless. Everybody was to the left.”
Tucker called Reed, who also had kickoff returns of 41 and 28 yards, “a difference-maker” in the return game.
“When the ball was in the air, it was obvious we had a shot,” Tucker said. “And with a guy like J-Reed, he doesn't need a lot of room. But there was a lot of room out there.”
But Reed wasn’t the only special teams star.
Tucker credited punter Bryce Baringer for helping the defense as the offense failed to convert a first down in the second half. A former walk-on, Baringer blasted a 67-yarder in first quarter and a 65-yarder to flip the field on MSU’s possession before the Reed score in the fourth.
And after a penalty on that touchdown pushed the ensuing kickoff back 15 yards, Coghlin sent a 75-yard blast downfield that ended up pinning Nebraska at its own 18. It ended the sixth-year senior’s streak of touchbacks at 21 straight, but it also prevented the Cornhuskers’ offense from getting good field position after the unsportsmanlike conduct penalty.
But it was Coghlin’s primary duties as place-kicker that had his teammates mobbing him in celebration after his 21-yard field goal in overtime, his fifth game-winner. He also connected from 26 and 27 yards in the second quarter, with a 44-yard attempt blocked after a high snap.
“Cogs came through for us big,” Tucker said. "He's a veteran player – he's been there, done that. He's always very confident. ... That last field goal to win it, he looked at me and was like, 'I got you.'”
MSU starting defensive end Drew Beesley injured his right leg early in the second quarter and left the field on a medical cart. Safety Darius Snow rolled into the sixth-year senior while both tried in vain to tackle Nebraska quarterback Adrian Martinez, who ran 45 yards on the play.
Beesley returned to the sideline at halftime on a wheelchair and wearing an immobilizing boot on his right foot, watching the rest of the game seated on a stretcher behind the north end zone. Tucker did not have an update on his condition after the game, saying he hoped to know more Sunday.
Safety Michael Dowell also appeared to injure his ankle late in the game but played through it and remained in the game in the fourth quarter and overtime.
MSU was without running back Elijah Collins and defensive ends Jack Camper and Itayvion Brown. Collins was injured during the Spartans' home win over Youngstown State earlier.
Starting safety Angelo Grose joined other MSU defensive players sporting green medical tape, his left arm and hand wrapped as he went through drills. First-string defensive tackles Jacob Slade and Simeon Barrow will be playing their third straight game with wraps on their hands, and defensive coordinator Scottie Hazelton on Thursday confirmed on Mel Tucker's radio show both players suffered broken hands during preseason camp.
Other notable players who did not dress: quarterback Hamp Fay; wide receivers Ricky White and Ian Stewart; and defensive backs Antoine Booth II, Khary Crump, Michael Gravely, A.J. Kirk and Marqui Lowery.
By the numbers
MSU improved to 17-7 in night games at Spartan Stadium with their first overtime victory since winning at Wisconsin on Oct. 27, 2012 and their first OT win at Spartan Stadium since the “Little Giants” victory over Notre Dame on Sept. 18, 2010.
The last time MSU opened 4-0 was during its 2015 season, when the Spartans started 8-0 en route to their most recent Big Ten championship and a College Football Playoff berth. Their only regular-season loss that season was at Nebraska, and MSU wouldn’t fall again until the national semifinal loss to Alabama.
The Cornhuskers on Saturday limited the Spartans’ offense to season lows of 23 points, 254 yards of total offense and 71 yards rushing. MSU entered averaging 39.3 points, 520 total yards and 263.7 yards on the ground a game.
This article originally appeared on Detroit Free Press: Michigan State's Jayden Reed, Matt Coghlin key comeback