MSU's Chris Frey, Matt Sokol, Brian Allen and Brian Lewerke talk about heading to Michigan to take on the No. 7 Wolverines. Matt Charboneau, The Detroit News
East Lansing — It only amounted to about five minutes of actual game time, but the experience Brian Lewerke got last year against Michigan is hard to quantify.
Now Michigan State’s starting quarterback, Lewerke was called on in the fourth quarter of last season’s rivalry game with the Wolverines and sparked a stagnant offense, leading it to a touchdown that cut Michigan’s lead to 30-17, then marching the Spartans into the red zone on the next drive.
However, it all ended there as Lewerke was sacked by Michigan’s Jabrill Peppers, a play that broke Lewerke’s leg and knocked him out for the rest of the season.
By December, Michigan State coach Mark Dantonio already had named Lewerke his starter for 2017, and as the sophomore is about to jump into the latest edition of a rivalry as intense as any in the country, most around the Michigan State program believe the short amount of playing time he got last season will go a long way when the teams kick off at 7:30 p.m. Saturday at Michigan Stadium.
“People don’t know what it’s like to play in this game until you’ve played in it,” senior center Brian Allen said. “He got a chance to play in it, so he knows what’s gonna happen, the physicality and what it’s like in that environment. It will be better after having him play in that game last year.”
There’s no doubt Lewerke has a better understanding of what the intensity is like when the Spartans and Wolverines play. He was on the roster when Michigan State won at Michigan in 2015, but didn’t make the trip as a true freshman.
So, last season was the first taste for the Phoenix native.
“I think it’s very different,” Lewerke said of the environment. “Even last year when we were having a season we didn’t really like, going into Michigan week I could feel the intensity pick up. I feel like that was a game we probably wanted to win most last year because obviously, it wouldn’t have completely fixed the season, but it would have made it a little better. You definitely feel the intensity.”
While Lewerke was able to get his feet wet in terms of the rivalry, his final play in the game proved to be critical considering he would not play again until the spring before starting this season’s opener.
It was especially frustrating for Lewerke. He had started the previous two games against Northwestern and Maryland before coming in for relief against Michigan. But he felt like it was all coming together in that fourth quarter against the Wolverines.
“That was probably where I felt the most comfortable in the game,” Lewerke said, “where I felt like I was hitting the learning curve.
“Being able to play even a little bit like I did (was good). Obviously, the injury sucked but I think that game helps a lot.”
Coach Mark Dantonio believes any experience helps a young player, especially a quarterback.
The four games Lewerke got to play in 2016 allowed Dantonio to go with Lewerke to open this season, and while he’s had his share of growing pains, the confidence is high that Lewerke is developing just as the Spartans expected.
Through four games, Lewerke is 84-for-133 for 963 yards and eight touchdowns with two interceptions. He’s also run the ball 38 times for 248 yards and two touchdowns while ranking second in the Big Ten and 21st in the nation in total offense at 302.8 yards a game.
“I think when you’re a quarterback, any college football team, especially at this level, every play that you have is going to help you,” Dantonio said. “So, every play that he’s had this season, every play that he has had last season; the experience in that game last season certainly helps him, and he can draw some strength from those things, and especially some experience.”
Lewerke understands just getting a few snaps last season won’t make this season’s matchup simple, and the realizes it will be different playing in a hostile environment on Saturday night.
But that won’t hold him back. He’ll keep making the throws he believes he should make and he’ll keep running the ball, even against one of the top defenses in the nation.
“It’s important that I be a playmaker and try make plays whenever the team needs me,” Lewerke said. “I’m not gonna shy away from scrambling or anything like that.”
Not even last year’s broken leg will do that. Not in this game.
“It will be a new experience (playing there) for me,” he said, “but I think it will be a fun one, a good one.”