East Lansing — Michigan State headed into the bye week exactly the way it wanted to — unbeaten and feeling confident about the direction it’s headed with one non-conference game to go before Big Ten play kicks off.
The 28-14 victory over Western Michigan was short on flash but was impressive on several fronts, especially considering the Broncos were coming in looking for the upset after nearly knocking off No. 4 Southern Cal a week ago.
But Michigan State controlled the game in nearly every aspect, outgaining Western Michigan, 457-195, while slowing a powerful Broncos running attack and rolling up 296 yards of its own. The defense also played well, not allowing a touchdown.
Here are some of the key takeaways from the win over Western Michigan:
■ 1. Getting defensive: Through two games, Michigan State’s defense still hasn’t allowed a touchdown and the only points it’s given up remain the three points it allowed on a field goal against Bowling Green in the opener. Western Michigan got its two touchdowns Saturday on a fumble returned for a touchdown and a 100-yard kickoff return, both by cornerback Darius Phillips. The Broncos offense, however, could do very little against the Spartans. Until the final drive of the game, Western Michigan was only in Michigan State territory four times and never got any deeper than the 41.
The Spartans held the Broncos’ potent ground attack to just 116 yards, a week after WMU ran for 263 against Southern Cal, and it allowed the Broncos to convert on just one of 15 third-down conversion attempts. In the back end, the young secondary was better than the opener when it allowed a few receivers to get open deep and freshman Josiah Scott got his first career interception.
■ 2.Pressuring the QB: Just two games into the season, it already looks like the Michigan State pass rush will take a big jump from last season. That’s not hard to do when you only get 11 sacks, but with four on Saturday the Spartans now have five and are nearly halfway to last season’s total. Sure, it didn’t come against a powerhouse team, but Western Michigan is experienced along the offensive line and has played some of the best teams in the country closely.
The true highlight for the Spartans was the fact the pressure didn’t come all on blitzes. They did get home early on one blitz, as linebacker Chris Frey and cornerback Josh Butler combined to bring down WMU quarterback Jon Wassink — though it looked like a running play — but redshirt freshman Brandon Randle got his first career sack, and defensive tackle Raequan Williams bulled his way in for another. The fourth came from linebacker Andrew Dowell and showed the Spartans’ pass-rush woes might have been a one-year problem.
■ 3. Dual-threat QB: Sophomore Brian Lewerke didn’t lead Michigan State in rushing like he did in the opener, but he came pretty close, gaining 81 yards on nine carries. The highlight was a 61-yard run in the first quarter for a touchdown, the longest scoring run by a Michigan State quarterback in a little more than 40 years. It’s an aspect of his game that adds another dimension to the Michigan State offense and unlike week one when Lewerke got most of his yards scrambling on pass plays, his work on Saturday was mostly on planned runs.
The Spartans still would like to get more out of their running backs, but if this week was any indication, they’re not going to hesitate to use Lewerke in the running game. He’s as athletic a quarterback as they’ve had, and while he surprised even himself by running away from the defense on his long touchdown run, expect him to continue to get up to 10 carries a game as the Spartans look to remain a multi-faceted attack.
■ 4. Scott still the guy: Junior LJ Scott had a rough opener, fumbling twice in the win over Bowling Green, with one coming near the goal line and the other getting scooped up and returned for a touchdown. With fifth-year senior Gerald Holmes and junior Madre London running well, it seemed likely they’d get more work against Western Michigan. When it was all said and done, though, it was Scott who led the way with 86 yards on 18 carries, including a 44-yard run on fourth-and-1 in the fourth quarter.
That led to his 2-yard touchdown run, his second score of the day after catching a 15-yard scoring pass in the first half. The decision to continue to go to Scott, including late in the game, showed he still holds a slight edge over his teammates. A quote from co-offensive coordinator and running backs coach Dave Warner made that clear. “It’s just a feeling over the years that LJ’s the guy,” he said, “and when it comes down to that, we can hand the ball to him.”
■ 5. Goal-line Stew: After the game, sophomore wide receiver Darrell Stewart was giving himself a hard time — his teammates had already done their fair share — for coming up short of the goal line for the second straight week. After getting taken down at the 2 on a reception last week, Stewart was pulled down at the 1 against Western Michigan on a 46-yard run. Stewart joked about not having what it takes to score, but he said in a serious moment he’s happy he had the opportunity to score.
That will happen when you’re making big plays, and so far, Stewart has shown that ability. His 46-yard run on Saturday was just the latest and the Spartans are starting to look his way when they need a spark. The next step for Stewart will be doing the same on kick and punt returns, two places the Spartans have been lacking. Stewart is the primary return man.