EAST LANSING â Needing a momentum-changing play in the worst way while training in the second half against Nebraska, Michigan State schemed up a dream scenario: its most dynamic player with the ball in his hands and 60 yards of open field in front of him.
How Michigan State created the situation that led to a Jayden Reed punt return touchdown in its eventual 23-20 overtime win involved some gumption, some deception and plenty of good execution.
âWith a guy like Jay Reed, he doesnât need a lot of room,â Spartans coach Mel Tucker said. âBut there was a lot of room out there, and he was out of the gate.â
When Nebraska lined up to punt with 4:02 left in the game while ahead by a touchdown, Spartans special teams coordinator and linebackers coach Ross Els called for a return play that his punt return unit had been working on for several weeks.
The play involved two return men: Jayden Reed and Jalen Nailor. When the ball was punted, Nailor waved his hand and every Michigan State player suddenly ran in his direction as if he was about to catch the ball. Nebraskaâs players followed suit.
The ball, though, wasnât headed toward Nailor. It was headed toward Reed, who was standing on the same yard line as Nailor but on the other side of the field.
That trickery allowed Reed to field the ball 10 yards away from every other player. A low punt also allowed Reed to get a running start on his return, and the fact that the punt didnât travel particularly far meant that several Nebraska players had already overrun the play while running toward Nailor instead of reed.
Reed said he knew even before the ball got to him that heâd be able to score a touchdown.
âI saw a wave of guys in white and red go that way and I was like âThatâs six,ââ Reed said.
Only two Nebraska players were in Reedâs path, and both were picked up by Spartans blockers as Reed flew 62 yards down the sideline to score Michigan Stateâs first punt return touchdown since 2011.
Coaches and players afterward credited Els for a strong play design and for calling it at the right time.
The play could have been run the opposite way, with Reed as decoy and Nailor as return man, had the punt gone the other direction. But Reed said Michigan State had studied the punter, Daniel Cerni, and determined that he was most likely to punt it to his left, so it set up Reed on that side of the field with its coverage designed to assist that side of the field best.
Nebraska coach Scott Frost said the punt was supposed to go toward Nailorâs side of the field, but that Cerni erred in sending it to Reed.
âRight when we need it the most we kick it to the wrong side of the field and some of the coverage guys didnât see it and it cost us the game,â Frost said.
Spartans quarterback Payton Thorne said he hadnât seen the play run in practice and was just as surprised as anyone to see Reed catch the punt.
âI had no idea, and I see Speedy (Jalen Nailor) waving his hand and I see the ball go the other way, I see him catch it and I see thereâs nobody over there,â Thorne said.
The play provided a critical boost in momentum. Michigan Stateâs offense recorded only 14 yards of offense in the second half with no first downs, as Nebraska tied the game then took the lead.
But in the absence of any offensive production, Michigan State was still able to create a situation where it had a high probability of scoring a touchdown it desperately needed.
âWhen the ball was in the air, it was obvious that we had a shot,â Tucker said.