East Lansing — Winning the tight ones — the games when everything doesn’t go smoothly yet somehow, by the time the clock runs out, a team manages to find itself on the winning side — is crucial in college football.
Every successful season has them, some more than others.
Michigan State got another one on Saturday at Spartan Stadium, using a pair of fourth-quarter touchdowns to rally for a 17-9 victory over Indiana in front of a homecoming crowd of 74,111. That’s two in a row as No. 18 Michigan State (6-1, 4-0 Big Ten) remained unbeaten in the conference and became bowl eligible in the process.
But what it did by pulling out a win on an afternoon where it wasn’t firing on all cylinders might be the biggest takeaway.
“We’re learning how to win, yeah,” coach Mark Dantonio said. “After last season we’re all learning. We had some tough games (last year) but we didn’t win them. I think that’s the case, we’re learning how to win. We’re building a foundation and when you put one brick on top of another one, the more games you win close the tougher you become, at least mentally tough.”
It’s something the Spartans lacked last season when they went 3-9 and missed a bowl game for the first time in Dantonio’s tenure.
That feeling has pushed them all offseason, through the summer and into the first half of the season. They haven’t talked much about last season, but it was on their minds on Saturday evening as, for a brief moment, they thought about how far they’ve come and what they’ve accomplished in just the last two weeks. That feeling, however, was fleeting.
“It’s an exciting time but we’re continuing to get better,” senior linebacker Chris Frey said. “After last year we’re excited to be bowl eligible but that’s not good enough for us. It’s not where we want to be. It’s not the standard the guys in the past have set for us and we’re just continuing to work every single day to become a better team.”
For much of the game on Saturday, it looked like that bowl eligibility would have to wait as the offense was continually getting stifled by a tough Indiana defense and quarterback Brian Lewerke was not sharp.
However, as it has often this season, the defense was on its game, holding the Hoosiers (3-4, 0-4) to three field goals, two coming after Indiana had been first-and-goal.
Chris Frey, Joe Bachie, LJ Scott and Brian Lewerke offer their perspective on MSU's come-from-behind win.
“Just didn’t get the ball in the end zone, and you got to score points, you got to score touchdowns, you know, and we know that and didn’t do it,” Indiana coach Tom Allen said. “Field goals are good, to a point, but not that point, so we got to score touchdowns.”
Three field goals from Griffin Oakes had given Indiana 9-3 lead early in the fourth quarter — Michigan State’s only points had come on a 23-yard Matt Coghlin field goal in the second quarter — and it wasn’t until then the Spartans started to show some life offensively.
After forcing Indiana to punt and taking over at its 45, Michigan State got its driver started with 9:07 to play. A pass interference call on the Hoosiers opened the drive but after Lewerke was sacked on second down for a loss of 9 yards, leaving the Spartans staring at a third-and-19.
Lewerke, who finished 16-for-29 for 185 yards, then hit freshman Cody White for a 16-yard gain and freshman Hunter Rison for 4 yards to convert on fourth down. Junior Felton Davis ran a double-reverse 16 yards on the next play and after a 3-yard run from LJ Scott, Lewerke hit Davis with a 10-yard touchdown pass with 5:59 to play.
“They’ve done a good job all year long,” co-offensive coordinator Dave Warner said of the freshmen receivers. “It just so happens this was their opportunity to shine when it came down to the end of the game.”
White finished with 99 yards on six catches, including a 32-yarder on third down during Michigan State’s final drive that set up Scott’s 18-yard touchdown run to close the scoring.
“I just hooked up, caught the ball and started rolling,” White said of the final grab. “It was kind of magic actually.”
Indiana quarterback Peyton Ramsey was 22-for-34 for 158 yards but couldn’t get the Hoosiers moving consistently as Indiana gained just 253 yards and were 4-for-17 on third downs.
The Hoosiers had one final attempt to tie the game but couldn’t get past midfield.
“We found a way,” Dantonio said. “I’d say it’s about grit. That’s really what it came down to. We found a way to win at the end of the game.”
And the confidence builds for a team many didn’t give a second thought heading into the season.
But with five to play, the Spartans are right there in the Big Ten East, building a resume that’s familiar.
“For sure (it builds character),” senior offensive lineman Brian Allen said. “We found a way to win and at the end of the day, that’s all that matters. You look back at the 2014 season, the 2015 season and we probably could have lost to Rutgers in 2015 to a team we had no business losing to and found ways to win in those seasons. That’s what we’re doing now.”