Spartans rise above miscues to win Big Ten opener over Hoosiers

Matt Charboneau
The Detroit News
Spartan wide receiver Jalen Nailor dives over the goal line for the first touchdown of the game.

Bloomington, Ind. — Michigan State isn’t trying to make every game a nail-biter. Just ask coach Mark Dantonio.

But on Saturday night in the Big Ten opener at Indiana, the Spartans were in a familiar position, a lead dwindling and the hometown crowd sensing a furious rally was in the works from the underdog Hoosiers. It’s a similar position Michigan State was in two weeks ago at Arizona State when it let a 10-point lead slip away, losing on the final play of the game.

This time, however, the Spartans got the big play they desperately needed.

After Indiana had cut Michigan State’s lead to seven with just more than three minutes to play, freshman wide receiver Jalen Nailor took a jet sweep and burst through the line, dashing 75 yards for the touchdown to take the air out of Memorial Stadium.

The run helped No. 24 Michigan State lock up a 35-21 victory and bounce back from its bye week with a much-needed victory.

BOX SCORE: Michigan State 35, Indiana 21

More: Michigan State's Nailor takes fast track to end zone

“It couldn’t have come at a better time,” Dantonio said. “It sort of deflated everything for them.”

The Spartans (2-1, 1-0 Big Ten) overcame four turnovers and eight penalties to beat Indiana for the second straight time and get rid of the bad taste from the loss at Arizona State. And when the Spartans went up 28-7 in the third quarter thanks to a 6-yard touchdown run from kicker Matt Coghlin on a fake field goal, it seemed they’d cruise to victory.

Instead, the Hoosiers (3-1, 0-1) started to chip away. First it was a short field goal then a 65-yard touchdown catch from Peyton Ramsey to Whop Philyor with 8:19 to play in the fourth quarter. Another field goal made it a seven-point game before Nailor’s big play.

“It’s very, very hard to win,” Dantonio said. “It’s extremely hard to win anywhere, any time. We keep trying (to win big). Believe me. We got them by 21 and we keep trying. But it’s the competitive attitude in this conference, in the East Division. Indiana has got a good football team. They were very competitive last year, as well. They continue to play hard.

“Why didn’t we deliver the knockout punch? Credit (Indiana coach) Tom Allen and his football team. They did a nice job. They kept hanging in there.”

Michigan State struggled, once again, to run the ball with much consistency. It got just 57 yards from its running backs while quarterback Brian Lewerke ran for 38 yards, not counting the 44 yards lost primarily from sacks.

And despite the fact Lewerke threw for 213 yards and two touchdowns, he was intercepted twice and lost a fumble while running back La’Darius Jefferson also lost a fumble. Add in the penalties and it was another sloppy offensive performance.

“We’ve got to run the ball more effectively,” Dantonio said. “It was tough sledding and we can’t hurt ourselves with errors and penalties. We’ve got to make better decisions at times with the football. We put the ball on the ground too much.”

Indiana was forced to move the ball almost exclusively through the air as Michigan State’s run defense was suffocating, allowing just 29 yards on the ground. Ramsey threw for 264 yards with two touchdowns, one to running back Stevie Scott in the first half and then the 65-yarder to Philyor in the fourth quarter. Philyor had 13 catches for 148 yards for the Hoosiers.

But Michigan State got consistent pressure on Ramsey and finished with four sacks.

“Too much pressure in the pass game on our quarterback,” Indiana coach Tom Allen said. “We only ran for 29 yards. That's with a lot of sacks, but that's very, very disappointing. So we have to address that as a program as a team and it has to change. They're No. 1 in the nation in run defense, but you got to find a way to run the ball.”

Added Michigan State linebacker Joe Bachie, “It was huge. They were 3-0 and feeling good and rushed for like 200 yards the first three games. We knew we had to stop the run and it’s something we pride ourselves on and we did a good job with that, so it was good to get the win.”

Despite the offensive miscues, Michigan State managed to take an early lead, first on a 16-yard touchdown pass from Lewerke to Nailor to take an early 7-0 lead. On the next possession, the defense came up big as redshirt freshman cornerback Shakur Brown grabbed a tipped pass and raced 69 yards for a touchdown to put the Spartans up, 14-0, with 5:35 left in the first quarter.

Indiana took advantage of Jefferson’s fumble by marching 51 yards on 10 plays, capping the drive with an 8-yard pass from Ramsey to Stevie Scott to cut the Spartans’ lead to 14-7 with 6:54 left in the second quarter. But Michigan State answered late in the half as Lewerke found tight end Matt Dotson with an 11-yard touchdown pass to give the Spartans a 21-7 lead in the final seconds of the first half.

After Coghlin’s score on the fake field goal put MSU up 28-7 with 4:47 left in the third quarter, Indiana started to chip away.

First it was a 35-yard field goal from Logan Justus in the first 30 seconds of the fourth quarter. After Lewerke’s second interception, the Hoosiers went 90 yards on seven plays, finishing with Philyor’s score and a two-point conversion to make it 28-18.

After MSU punted on the next drive, Logan added a 36-yard field goal with 3:28 to play before Nailor broke free.

“We came away with a win,” Dantonio said. “It's exciting we got the Brass Spittoon back for another year. I thought we had great focus. We talked about what our identity as a football team is coming into here. Who are we going to be? We've got to start building our identity. We had to come with full focus. I thought we had full focus throughout the entire trip, especially today.”


Twitter: @mattcharboneau