Photo by Nebraska Communications

On A Day Remembering Kickers, Pickering Delivers

By Brian Rosenthal

An Alabama native, Barret Pickering had never before played a football game in snow.

On Saturday, the wind – or breeze, as Pickering innocently called it – gusted to 35 miles per hour out of the north on a gray, dreary 25-degree day at Memorial Stadium. Flurries began to fall in the second half of Nebraska’s football game against Michigan State, and by the time Pickering lined up for a 47-yard field goal attempt in the fourth quarter, with the score tied, snow had begun sticking to the turf.

Pickering, a true freshman, wiped himself a clear kicking spot and went about his business. He talked with his holder, Isaac Armstrong, about that “breeze,” and how Pickering would aim his attempt toward the left upright.

“As soon as I saw it was starting to come back right,” Pickering said, “I knew it was going in.”

Never mind the snap from long snapper Jordan Ober to Armstrong sailed a bit high and tight. Pickering had no clue until Ober later delivered an apology.

“Isaac’s the one you can credit that one to,” Pickering said. “He saved that one.”

Pickering, meanwhile, focused on the ball and delivered the longest field goal of his young career through the uprights, the winning points with 5:13 remaining in Nebraska’s 9-6 slugfest victory on Senior Day in Lincoln.

On a day these teams honored two of their former fallen teammates, punters Sam Foltz and Mike Sadler, it seemed fitting that kickers scored every point, and that punters delivered in a game of field position.

“Today was about them,” Pickering said. “This was a game for them, and definitely I’d like to dedicate my performance to Mike and Sam out there. It means a lot that I go out there and represent them well.”

Nebraska (4-7, 3-5 Big Ten Conference) trailed 6-0 in the fourth quarter before Pickering kicked three field goals, the other two from 36 and 20 yards, to give the Huskers their fourth straight home victory.

 “I had enough confidence in him at that point to let him go out and try a long one,” Nebraska coach Scott Frost said of Pickering, “and he buried it. It turned out to be the difference.”

The day began with Frost and Michigan State coach Mark Dantonio meeting the families of Foltz and Sadler at midfield for a special ceremony. Saturday’s game was the first between Michigan State and Nebraska since Foltz and Sadler died in an automobile accident in July of 2016 in Wisconsin after the two were returning from a kickers’ camp.

Sadler’s family laid flowers at the 5-yard line on one side of the field, while Foltz’s family laid flowers on the 27-yard line in remembrance of both players’ jersey numbers. The pregame coin flip featured the special Sadler-Foltz coin that has been used in Big Ten Championship games.

Frost, although he never met Foltz, said the pregame ceremony was touching.

“Boy, everything you hear about Sam is not just how good of a player he was, but how good of a person he was,” Frost said, noting that Dantonio told him the same about Sadler. “Lives that end too soon; it’s a tragedy. So, we’re sorry to see that happen, but it was pretty special what they did for him on the field today.”

Foltz, a sturdy athlete who could’ve played a variety of positions, would have also appreciated some of the bone-jarring hits members of the Blackshirts delivered in their best overall performance of the season.

Nebraska forced two turnovers and twice turned away Michigan State (6-5, 4-4) after the Spartans moved into Husker territory late in the fourth quarter, with Nebraska clinging to its three-point lead.

When senior safety Tre Neal helped force a fourth-down incomplete pass on Michigan State’s final play, the Huskers gained a first down on offense and celebrated their first victory without the benefit of a touchdown since 1937.

“We’ve had an up-and-down year. We’ve done some good things,” senior linebacker Luke Gifford said of the defense. “We’ve gotten better the last few weeks, and that says it all.”

Gifford said he was especially proud of fellow senior safety Antonio Reed, who had seven tackles, including three for loss, and changed the game with a crushing hit and forced fumble in the fourth quarter.

After Nebraska had closed within 6-3, Reed hit quarterback Rocky Lombardi square and jarred loose the ball, which redshirted freshman defensive lineman Damion Daniels recovered at the Michigan State 20-yard line.

The Memorial Stadium press box shook after the play – likely from exuberant fans in West Stadium, although if someone said it resulted from Reed’s hit alone, well, who’s to argue?

“You know when he’s coming down to make a play,” Gifford said, “it’s not just going to be a wrap-up tackle. He’s coming with some power.”

Senior running back Devine Ozigbo, who became the first Husker since Ameer Abdullah in 2014 to surpass 1,000 rushing yards in a season, busted loose for a 15-yard gain on third-and-long to set up the Huskers first-and-goal. But the Huskers had to turn to Pickering, who delivered a game-tying field goal.

Reed came up big again with a break-up on a third-down pass on Michigan State’s next possession. That forced a punt that set up the Huskers’ game-winning field goal.

“He was certainly the hero of our defense today,” Frost said. “I couldn't be happier for him on Senior Day, last game at Memorial Stadium. That’s a great way to go out. So, my hat’s off to Antonio.”

Nebraska held Michigan State to 289 total yards, and Lombardi, a redshirted freshman, was 15-of-41 passing for 146 yards, with one interception – a Hail Mary pass Reed intercepted at the 1-yard line with 3 seconds left before halftime.

“The atmosphere was rocking today,” said Lombardi, starting in place of injured Brian Lewerke. “It was snowy and windy in one of the loudest atmospheres in the country. All those factors are going to play into the game.”

Nebraska, playing without injured sophomore receiver JD Spielman, collected 248 yards of total offense, its second-lowest output of the season, against a Michigan State defense that’s No. 1 in the nation in defending the run. And Saturday’s conditions weren’t conducive to throwing, either, as quarterback Adrian Martinez did what he could, going 16-of-37 for 145 yards.

Bottom line, Nebraska found a way.

“Good teams figure out how to win any kind of game,” Frost said. “I am so happy for the seniors, so happy for the Blackshirts. Some of these games we’ve won, we’ve been winning on offense, and it was great to see the defense step up today.”

“Seniors stepped up big today. Antonio (Reed), Tre (Neal), Jerald (Foster) and Tanner (Farmer) on the offensive line, Stanley (Morgan Jr.) broke a record today (182 career receptions). Just a bunch of guys, Devine (Ozigbo) going over 1,000 yards (on the season), some of these seniors are the guys that are carrying this. I couldn’t be happier for them and the success we’re having at the end.”

Reach Brian at brosenthal@huskers.com or follow him on Twitter @GBRosenthal.

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