Michigan State was the underdog again in its rivalry with Michigan, but once again it was the Spartans coming away with the victory, the eighth in the last 10 meetings.
It was hardly an offensive masterpiece, plenty of that due to the Michigan defense and almost as much because of the brutal weather in Ann Arbor, but it was just enough combined with a difference-making defense to get the win.
The key for Michigan State is how does it build off this victory heading to Minnesota next week. Does it spark a run or will it be tough to avoid a letdown?
That story will be told next weekend and beyond. Until then, here are some important takeaways from the 14-10 win over Michigan.
■ Take it away: Before Michigan State played Iowa last week, it ranked 125th in the nation in turnover margin. The Spartans responded by forcing two turnovers against the Hawkeyes while not giving up the ball then followed that up with five turnovers against the Wolverines. On top of that, the Spartans did not give the ball up, even in a torrential downpour that lasted nearly the entire third quarter.
While Michigan State only managed seven points off those five turnovers, the fact the defense is making things happen is the important part. The Spartans now have leapt into the top third in the nation in turnover margin, and the nine forced turnovers move them into the middle of the Big Ten. It’s been quite the turnaround after MSU created only two turnovers in the first three games while committing six, and now they head into the thick of conference play with a defense that is looking to take away the ball.
■ The sack is back: Not surprisingly, the defense dominates the storylines coming out of the Michigan win, and while the turnovers were big, the fact the Spartans once again have a pass rush is almost as important. Michigan State had four sacks on Saturday, matching the most they’ve had in a game this season and ramping up the season total to 13. That number alone isn’t among the conference leaders, but considering the Spartans had 11 sacks all of last season, it’s saying something.
And while Michigan State continues to generate pressure with all sorts of blitz packages, it’s getting production from the defensive line, as well. End Kenny Willekes, the former walk-on, had two sacks against the Wolverines while junior tackle Gerald Owens got one as well. The Spartans will keep dialing up the blitzes, but getting pressure with a four-man rush could pay huge dividends as the season progresses.
■ Lewerke working: The passing numbers were hardly anything quarterback Brian Lewerke will want to highlight — 11-for-22 for 94 yards and a touchdown — but it’s becoming clear the sophomore has the heart that will make him a winner more often than not. He led the Spartans in rushing again, picking up 61 yards on 15 carries, but it’s the fact he’s not afraid to take a hit and will put his head down to get extra yardage. He did it on Michigan State’s first score and again late in the game when the Spartans need a first down.
Add in the fact Lewerke has now gone two games without turning the ball over and his maturation in his first year as a starting quarterback is happening quickly. Michigan State will need him to make more plays through the air, but considering what he’s done so far, there seems little doubt he’ll be able to do that.
■ Protecting the QB: Michigan State’s offensive line is young; that much has been clear since the season-opener. It’s gotten even younger the past two games with freshman Kevin Jarvis starting at right guard in place of injured junior David Beedle. And while the Spartans had a tough time creating running room against a Michigan team that entered the game as the top running defense in the nation, they did just enough while continuing to protect Lewerke.
The Wolverines came close a few times, but the Spartans did not allow a sack to a team that entered the game averaging 4.5 sacks a game. So while the running game comes along a bit more slowly than Michigan State hoped, the pass protection has been impressive and will only get better as the youthful offensive line gains valuable experience.
■ Return to form: Which brings us to the biggest takeaway and that’s the fact Michigan State is quickly proving that last season’s collapses was the exception and hardly the norm. The Spartans were a heavy underdog, and hadn’t really turned any heads early in the season, but they’ve done that now, knocking off a team that expected to contend for the Big Ten. In the process, Michigan State has reasserted its dominance in the rivalry with Michigan while proving that the bounce-back season could be better than many expected.
The win guarantees nothing as the Spartans have plenty of areas to get better. The penalties continue to be an issue — they were flagged 11 times against the Wolverines — and the running game is still seeking any sort of consistency. But it’s clear the young Spartans won’t be overmatched this season, and they have a good shot at having a say in how the Big Ten East shakes out by the end of the season.