'Incredible' defense helps Spartans wrangle Broncos
East Lansing — Every team in college football wants to get off to a good start, but for Michigan State, that idea carried with it a bit more urgency this season.
There’s no doubt the Spartans were eager to get the season started, ready to put last year’s 3-9 mark in the rearview mirror. They did that in a season-opening win over Bowling Green a week ago and the plan on Saturday against Western Michigan was to build some confidence and feel good heading into an early bye with Notre Dame coming up next.
Consider it mission accomplished as Michigan State beat Western Michigan, 28-14, in front of 72,910 at Spartan Stadium on Saturday, beating a Broncos team that came in primed to pull off the upset after pushing No. 4 Southern Cal to the brink last week.
“Very,” coach Mark Dantonio said simply when asked how important the 2-0 start is for the Spartans. “We’ve won a lot of football games here but last year we had some stuff. It's important to get off to a great start just like it is for everybody. There's a lot of football teams out there that are competing in tough games every week. I keep saying that everybody's got a plan when they come in there and everybody's got some players. You got to get ready to play.
“We’re just taking it one step at a time. The first thing we needed to do was win No. 1, then No. 2. We've got one more out of conference game and … then we'll be in Big Ten play.”
What Michigan State (2-0) used on Saturday was a defensive performance that should fit in just nicely once conference play begins.
For the second straight week, the Spartans did not allow an offensive touchdown and held Western Michigan to 195 total yards, including 116 on the ground a week after the Broncos rolled up 263 against Southern Cal. Western Michigan also converted only one of 15 third-down attempts while going 3-for-5 on fourth down.
“The goal was to stop the run, that's the goal every week,” co-defensive coordinator Harlon Barnett said. “But we knew for sure that they were going to come in here and try to run the ball on us, and so our guys stepped up to the challenge. Our D-line we think played pretty well … and we tackled OK early and then we got better as the game went on. So, credit to those guys again, executing the game plan. We stressed stopping the run all week long, and I feel like we did a pretty good job.”
The offense also had another balanced game as the Spartans ran for 296 yards and threw for 161.
Sophomore quarterback Brian Lewerke ran for 81 yards and two touchdowns, the first a 61-yarder in the first quarter before adding a 1-yard plunge in the third quarter. He was 13-for-21 passing for 161 yards with a touchdown and an interception.
LJ Scott ran for 86 yards on 18 carries, the biggest chunk coming on a 44-yard run in the fourth quarter on fourth-and-1. He capped that drive with a 2-yard touchdown run, adding that to a 15-yard scoring catch in the first half. Felton Davis had four catches for 69 yards to lead the Spartans in receiving.
“It’s a great feeling. Nothing feels better than winning a football game,” Lewerke said. “I want to give a shout out to our defense. They played incredible. We still haven’t given up a touchdown when we haven’t turned the ball over. One was a fumble return and then the kickoff. They did a fantastic job so we’re hoping to keep that rolling as we go into Notre Dame.”
Western Michigan (0-2) came close the upset last week and expected to give Michigan State as much trouble this week. However, the Broncos couldn’t get much rolling as LeVante Bellamy gained 67 yards on 12 carries and quarterback Jon Wassink was just 11-for-26 for 79 yards with an interception.
The two scores for the Broncos came from cornerback Darius Phillips, who forced a fumble and returned it 67 yards for a score in the third quarter then added a 100-yard kickoff return for a touchdown in the fourth, his second in as many weeks and his second against the Spartans. He took one back 100 yards for a touchdown against Michigan State in 2015.
“We knew they were big up front, but I thought we’d get more push than we did,” Western Michigan coach Tim Lester said. “They were so focused on not letting us run down straight ahead. ... They were daring us to throw it. We got behind coverage two or three times. We had two sacks, we overthrew one, we got hit the one time while we were throwing it. And that’s really what we have to develop (our passing game).
“Today was a day we needed it or we didn’t have a chance.”
While Western Michigan moves on looking for its first win this season, Michigan State takes the week off, a big group of players headed to Houston later in the week to help with recovery efforts after Hurricane Harvey.
In the meantime, they’ll look to build off what they’ve done in the first two weeks, hoping the winning streak lasts far longer than last season.
“I think it's really important,” linebacker Chris Frey said. “But with that being said we've got to continue to get better every single week. We've got to continue to improve, we've got to continue to do everything that we've been doing on a regular basis but we've got a very good opponent coming in and we've got to crank it up another notch. They're going to come in here ready to go and we've got to be on that point too.”