EAST LANSING, Mich. — It was about time for something to go Michigan State’s way.
The Spartans, trailing Indiana 9-3 midway through the fourth quarter, had struggled to move the ball Saturday at Spartan Stadium. They had managed two drives of more than 20 yards, one of which resulted in their field goal. Compare that to six drives that didn’t even manage 10 yards.
One touchdown drive would be enough to push No. 18 Michigan State (6-1, 4-0 Big Ten) ahead, and that’s what it got just at the right time to spur on a 17-9 win against the Hoosiers (3-4, 0-4). But as it did for much of the game, Michigan State’s offense relied on the other phases to set it up for success.
— Michigan St. on BTN (@MichiganStOnBTN) October 21, 2017
A 45-yard Jake Hartbarger punt was covered beautifully by the Spartans, and freshman Dominique Long dropped standout return man J-Shun Harris for a loss of 1 yard. A block in the back pushed the Hoosiers back even farther, and they started from their own 12-yard line.
Michigan State’s defense forced 5 three-and-outs in the game, none more important than this one. Kenny Willekes stuffed two straight runs, and a false start made it third-and-11. Indiana receiver Ricky Brookins managed just 3 yards before he was flattened. Indiana’s 41-yard punt, caught fairly by Cody White at Michigan State’s 45-yard line, put the Michigan State offense in a great spot.
“Shout out to the entire defense for coming out, being ready to go, having that fire,” linebacker Joe Bachie said. “We were able to flip the field, and that’s something we talk about all the time, too.”
Then the penalties came into play. The referees had started to throw flags liberally for pass interference, and Indiana’s Rashard Fant was called for one on the first play of the drive as he tugged on Spartans receiver Felton Davis. Down to the Indiana 40-yard line.
After an incomplete pass, freshman right guard Kevin Jarvis missed his block on second down, and quarterback Brian Lewerke was taken down by the Hoosiers’ Chris Covington. Facing third-and-19, it looked as though another drive would fizzle outside of scoring range.
But Lewerke knew what he had to do. He didn’t have to throw past the first-down marker. He just had to throw a strike to give the Spartans a chance, which he did by hitting White for a 16-yard gain.
“I knew that if we had gotten a little bit of yards back, then there was potential of going for it on fourth down,” Lewerke said. “It was a great play call. [White] was wide open across the middle early. I was flushed out of the pocket and I just kept my eye on him.”
A quick throw to Lewerke’s left on fourth-and-3 hit freshman Hunter Rison, who stretched across the line to gain. Rison also had a critical third-down grab as the Spartans drove to make it 17-9.
“Those guys are definitely stepping up each week,” running back LJ Scott said of the young receivers. “Hunter Rison coming in the clutch with two huge catches, it’s about grit. You just keep going from here.”
Then it was time for Michigan State’s bag of tricks. Co-offensive coordinator Dave Warner, so often lambasted for conservative play calling, had tried a halfback pass in the second quarter from freshman Connor Heyward to Lewerke that fell incomplete in the end zone.
On this occasion, the creativity worked out. White took an end-around then pitched it for a reverse to Davis, who got to the edge for a 16-yard gain to the Indiana 13-yard line. Lewerke glowed when talking about the double reverse.
“I loved it,” he said. “We’ve had that on our playbook all year. It was something, great play call. When I got over there to try and block, I was just hoping no one was there and going to come from the backside. I was trying to protect the backside and I actually pushed LJ into the guy to try and make him fall and maybe cut the guy.”
Two plays later, Lewerke found Davis wide open on a corner route on the left side of the end zone as he had on several occasions this year. It was the first touchdown of the game for either side.
“It was a dual read,” Lewerke explained. “There was one side for middle and one side for the one safety. They went Cover 1 with one safety in the middle of the field, so I knew Felton, as long as he did everything he was supposed to do, he’d be wide open on that side and was.”
It’s a lot less complex to explain the significance of that play. In wins over Iowa, Michigan and Minnesota, the Spartans had scored early and watched their defense hold on. This time they desperately needed to make something happen late in the game and did.
Great team win tonight to make us bowl eligible, but it doesn't stop here! Keep pounding! #GoGreen
— Josiah Scott (@JosiahScott7) October 22, 2017
Michigan State lost these types of games last year. Against Indiana, the Spartans held a late lead before allowing it to slip away in overtime. Youngsters get the bulk of the playing time, but Michigan State has had the poise of grizzled veterans.
“I think it’s just something you learn,” Lewerke said. “Through the first one, as we’ve gone through all of them, I think we’ve done a great job at finishing. Even despite our youth, I think we’ve learned how to win tight games like that.”
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