Nebraska’s special teams meeting room was not a happy place to be on Monday morning.
In addition to giving up a critical, game-tying punt return touchdown to Michigan State’s Jayden Reed with 3 minutes, 47 seconds remaining on Saturday night, NU also surrendered a 41-yard kick return to Reed, netted an average of 28 yards on six other punts that weren’t returned for a touchdown, lost the net punting battle by a total of 190 yards and had a kick return stuffed after a penalty that should have helped.
The punt return score — set up by a wayward Daniel Cerni punt that hooked low and to the left to Reed rather than toward the right sideline — would have been enough on its own, but the laundry list this week was a long one.
“The special teams meeting (Monday morning) was tough, it was rough, but it was honest,” Frost said. “(Special teams coordinator Mike Dawson) did a great job. I think he got their attention. He’s had their attention all year, but I think he really got their attention this morning. I want to see guys respond.”
The punt return, of course, was the biggest play of the night on special teams.
“He shouldn’t have even been a factor in the play,” Frost said of Reed, who was lined up to Nebraska’s left across from receiver Jalen Nailor to the right in a two-returner look. “We’ve got to pay attention to where the ball goes, but people (put two returners back deep) when you have the potential for rugby punts and the punt can go anywhere, to try to get it fielded and not let it roll, but 7-yard punts don’t roll very far and punts that miss their mark by 35 yards, we didn’t have anybody over there.
“There’s 30 plays that would have won that game for us, so we can point at a few of those and that was obviously not good, but there’s other areas we can get better, too.”
There were smaller issues, too, that loom large in a close game. NU let three MSU punts roll a combined 45 yards, for example. Another: MSU drew a 15-yard penalty on the kick return touchdown that could be enforced either on the extra point or the kickoff.
Frost chose to take it on the kickoff, so Spartan Matt Coghlin had to kick from the 20 instead of the 35. Husker return man Rahmir Johnson, though, muffed the ball at the 5 and only got out to the 18 on NU’s only kick return attempt of the night. That’s 7 yards short of where the offense starts with a fair catch, and once Frost took the penalty on the kickoff, there was no way Johnson was going to fair catch it unless Coghlin would have somehow gotten the ball deep into the end zone.
The point of enforcing the penalty on the kickoff was to try to start with better field position than the 25. Instead, NU started deep in its own territory. Hindsight being 20/20, perhaps Frost should have taken the ball at the 25 and made Coghlin hit a 36-yard, game-tying extra point. Coghlin, though, has never missed an extra point in his career and is 25-of-30 lifetime on field goals between 30-39 yards.
So Frost played for the field position and it backfired.
“That hidden yardage stuff will kill you in a game,” Frost said.