'We knew what we had to do': MSU quells offensive worries, mashes Western Michigan
East Lansing — It was hard for Brian Lewerke to hold back his smile on Saturday night.
And why would he?
Too many times over the past two seasons the Michigan State quarterback was forced to walk into the media room at Spartan Stadium and try and explain why the offense couldn’t ever seem to get on track. Why, was it, that Michigan State was so dominant on defense but could rarely build any sort of momentum when it had the ball.
So yeah, after No. 19 Michigan State rolled over Western Michigan, 51-17, in front of 73,113 behind what can only be described as an offensive explosion, the smile was quick to appear for the fifth-year senior and he had no plans of wiping it away.
“I've been kind of tired of being in the offense that sucks,” Lewerke said, “and I don’t know, I just want to be good and we kind of took good steps tonight.”
Sucks might have been a bit harsh, but when you’re the quarterback for one of the worst offenses in the nation — like Michigan State was last season — and last week’s season-opener didn’t look any better, you can understand where Lewerke was coming from.
It made what the Spartans (2-0) did on Saturday all that more enjoyable for Lewerke and his teammates.
It started quickly as Michigan State scored a touchdown on each of its first three possessions after not having scored three touchdowns in a game since a 24-3 win over Maryland last season.
The 51 points were the most since a 55-16 win over Penn State in 2015 and the 582 total yards were the first time Michigan State gained more than 500 yards in a game since it gained 540 against Northwestern in 2017.
“I felt it was in them,” offensive coordinator Brad Salem said. “I felt like we would play better the first game … but I’m excited for our kids really the way they responded.”
The individual performances were impressive and across the board. Lewerke finished 23-for-32 for 314 yards and three touchdowns while wide receiver Darrell Stewart had 10 catches for a career-high 185 yards to go along with a 42-yard touchdown.
And with the Spartans searching for that No. 1 running back, redshirt freshman Elijah Collins gained a career-best 192 yards on 17 carries, highlighted by a 58-yard run early in the second half. Collins’ 192 yards were the most since LJ Scott gained 194 yards against Minnesota in 2017 and the second-most by a freshman running back (Javon Ringer 194 yards at Illinois in 2005).
“All week we just went through practice believing in each other,” Stewart said. “That's the one main thing we knew that we can come out here and make things happen. It's a beautiful feeling when everything's clicking. And one thing about that I love about this coaching staff is they believe in us.”
With everything clicking, things changed throughout the stadium. Instead of showering the team with boos like the fans did last week, they were instead cheering raucously as the points kept piling up.
In addition to Stewart’s score, junior Cody White and junior tight end Matt Dotson also had touchdown catches while sophomore La’Darius Jefferson had two touchdown runs and junior Alante Thomas added a 1-yard TD run. Junior kicker Matt Coghlin also booted three field goals for the Spartans.
“It’s a long season and we’re 2-0,” coach Mark Dantonio said. “The most important thing to me is there are a lot of happy people in that locker room.”
Western Michigan missed its share of opportunities in the first half with a pair of missed field goals and an interception thrown in the end zone.
Senior quarterback Jon Wassink was 23-for-37 for 252 yards and a touchdown. The score was a 14-yard strike to tight end Giovanni Ricci late in the second quarter. Ricci finished with six receptions for 53 yards for the Broncos (1-1), who have lost 12 straight to the Spartans.
“We came into this game pretty confident with our game plan, all the credit to the defense there,” WMU tight end Giovanni Ricci said. “Very good defense, very good team. Michigan State came out to play. I felt like we have a lot to learn from. We left a lot on the table especially at the end of that first half. We are going to get back to it.”
For the second straight week, Michigan State’s offense came out firing, though this time it didn’t rely on penalties to move the ball. The first play from scrimmage was a 33-yard pass from Lewerke to Stewart followed by a 29-yard run from Collins. Collins then ran for 11 yards and after a pass interference call against Western Michigan, Lewerke hit tight end Dotson for a 2-yard touchdown pass to put the Spartans up 7-0 with 13:26 left in the first quarter.
The Spartans kept things rolling on their second drive as Lewerke was 5-for-7 on the drive. A 20-yard completion to White along with a roughing the passer call on Western set Michigan State up at the Broncos’ 7.
After a pass interference call, Jefferson scored on a 2-yard run to put Michigan State ahead, 14-0, with 8:14 left in the first quarter. The lead was extended to 21-0 with 1:59 to play in the first quarter when Stewart broke free in the middle of the field and hauled in a 42-yard touchdown pass from Lewerke.
“The offense kind of struggled the first game, everyone was freaking out, but we were fine, we knew what we had to do,” Lewerke said. “What I said was we're going to win this game whether it's a close one or a big one, but it'll be up to the offense. We obviously showed that tonight.”
After getting in the early hole, Western Michigan started to find a rhythm, marching 66 yards on 10 plays and converting a fourth-and-2 when Wassink hit Ricci with a 14-yard touchdown pass to cut the MSU lead to 21-7 with 11:34 left in the second quarter.
The Broncos looked to build on that momentum when Najee Clayton intercepted a deflected pass, but the ensuing drive ended with kicker Thiago Kapps missing his second field goal of the game, this one from 27 yards.
Michigan State capitalized by marching down the field and scoring on a 2-yard pass from Lewerke to White after a 17-yard reverse pass from Stewart to Lewerke moved the ball inside the WMU 5. The touchdown gave Michigan State a 28-7 lead with 4:32 left in the second half.
Michigan State’s second turnover gave Western life late in the half. A Connor Heyward fumble was recovered by WMU’s William McCabe at the MSU 17. However, safety Xavier Henderson notched his first career interception in the end zone to halt the Broncos.
“Huge play in that sudden change to keep all points off the board,” defensive coordinator Mike Tressel said. “That was huge because that's going right into halftime and that can completely flip the script, especially when they get the ball to start the second half. So big play by Xavier.”
The Spartans closed the half with a 49-second drive that ended with Coghlin’s 38-yard field goal to give the Spartans a 31-7 lead at the break.
Michigan State added a pair of field goals in the second half, the first coming after Collins broke free for a 58-yard run on the Spartans’ first play from scrimmage in the third quarter. Jefferson tacked on his second scoring run early in the fourth quarter while
Thomas scored on a 1-yard run to cap the scoring for Michigan State.
Western Michigan got a 31-yard field goal from Kapps and then added a 15-yard touchdown pass from Griffin Alstott to Ryan Selig with 24 seconds left.
“Definitely, it’s felt good to get the ball moving, but we're still hungry,” Stewart said. “We have a lot more games to play. It's good to celebrate right now, but we're back in the lab tomorrow watching film and working out. It's bigger than one game, we're trying to chase a championship.”