Michigan State: Five things we learned vs. Indiana
Here are five takeaways from Matt Charboneau following Michigan State’s 17-9 win over Indiana on Saturday.
WHEN IT MATTERS
The numbers for sophomore quarterback Brian Lewerke weren’t great for the third straight week and this time there was no poor weather to blame. However, when the game was on the line, the sophomore quarterback made the throws he needed to, hitting freshman Cody White for 16 yards on a third-down pass in the fourth quarter that set up a 4-yard pass to freshman Hunter Rison on fourth-and-3 to extend what turned out to be the winning drive. Lewerke capped that drive with a 10-yard touchdown pass to junior Felton Davis and on the final drive of the game found White for 32 yards on third-and-9 to effectively put the game away.
Lewerke finished 16-for-29 for 185 yards but was off the mark often in the first half. Sharp he was not, but what the young quarterback showed, as he did the previous two weeks in wins at Michigan and Minnesota, was that he has a knack for making winning plays. There’s no doubt the Spartans need more production from Lewerke, but one thing is becoming clear: Even when he’s struggling he’s the guy they’ll be counting on to lead the offense.
FRESHMEN STEP UP
It was interesting that late in the game, when Lewerke needed to make play, he looked toward White and Rison, two true freshmen who have steadily seen their snaps increase on a weekly basis. White had a career game, catching six passes for 99 yards, while Rison had just two grabs for 13 yards. But those two grabs were huge, the first converting a fourth-and-3 on that go-ahead drive, while Rison had a 9-yard catch on third-and-8 to extend the final drive that put the game away. White’s first big catch was a 16-yarder that set up Rison’s fourth-down conversion and his last was a 32-yard catch on third down on the final drive.
Of the nine combined touches for White and Rison, seven produced first downs, including three of the four critical plays on the final two scoring drives. The Spartans have plenty of young playmakers at wide receiver, but this game was a chance for White and Rison to emerge. “They made a name for themselves today because they made some big-time catches in critical situations,” co-offensive coordinator Dave Warner said. “We’ve had a lot of confidence in them all year long and today they stepped up and did a great job for us.”
Michigan State coach Mark Dantonio made it pretty clear after the game why he decided to let LJ Scott play on Saturday – because they needed him to. And, quite frankly, Scott probably needed it, too. The junior running back was arrested on Wednesday for a seventh driving infraction in the past two years and on Friday accepted a plea deal and paid $560 in fines and costs to resolve the ticket he received for driving on a suspended license. Some questioned it but Dantonio remained steadfast. “Ultimately, sometimes you’re put in situations where you have to make very tough decisions,” Dantonio said. “However, this was not one of them.”
In other words, Dantonio made it clear it wasn’t a big deal, and for a coach who’s not been afraid to show players the door, it says something that he stood behind his player. Scott responded with 87 yards rushing with a touchdown, and for his part, he was just happy to be moving past the incident. What does it mean in the long run? Hard to say, but it’s another example of the fact this team is much tighter than the one from last season.
SHUTTING THE DOOR
Michigan State’s defense was good once again, avoiding a fourth-quarter letdown like it had last week against Minnesota. Where the Spartans really shined was in the red zone, where they forced Indiana to settle for field goals three times – two of those kicks coming after the Hoosiers had moved into the red zone. It proved critical as Michigan State’s offense took time to get rolling and the final stop, with the Hoosiers sitting at first-and-10 from the MSU 11, allowed the Spartans to march down the field and take the lead.
Overall, the Spartans allowed 95 yards rushing and 253 overall as Indiana was just 4-for-17 on third downs. It’s the sort of defense Michigan State didn’t get last season as it held a lead in every game but finished 3-9. The defense is making the big plays now and leaning heavily on young players to do it. If it can continue to do so down the stretch, Michigan State will push the likes of Penn State and Ohio State in the race for the East Division title.
CLOSING THE DEAL
After allowing 21 fourth-quarter points last week at Minnesota, Michigan State put plenty of focus this week on finishing strong. The defense played well the entire game and was especially strong in the fourth quarter while the offense made its biggest plays in the final 15 minutes. Michigan State rarely made big plays late in the game last season and its showing that its young team is figuring things out quicker than most expected.
“We found a way to win and that’s what good football teams do,” coach Mark Dantonio said. “You could really look at us as a program, over the last number of years, and when we’ve had big years, we found a way to win close games. You can go back and look at the games that we on in ’13, or the games we won in ’14 or ’15, and we just found a way to win, and there’s something to that. There’s something to that and there’s life lessons in that. That’s the biggest thing I think we can take away from this.”