East Lansing — Seven hours for the seventh win, and now November matters again.
That’s exactly what Michigan State went through on Saturday, and with three games left in the regular season, the Spartans are in a familiar spot — playing for a Big Ten East Division title with a spot in the conference championship game still up for grabs.
It wasn’t a typical game, a weather delay of three hours and 22 minutes breaking up No. 24 Michigan State’s matchup with No. 7 Penn State.
But as the final seconds ticked away, redshirt freshman kicker Matt Coghlin put a 34-yard field goal through the middle of the uprights to give the Spartans a 27-24 victory in front of a half-full stadium full of diehards that made Spartan Stadium sound full.
“You go back to what I’ve talked about before,” Michigan State coach Mark Dantonio said. “November is really for contenders. We’ve put ourselves in a position to at least be called contenders and that’s what we want to do and we’ll play them one at a time.”
This one was big, though. And while Dantonio talked all week about opportunities still being ahead even after the Spartans’ loss last week at Northwestern, few believed they’d knock off the Nittany Lions, a team trying to bounce back from a loss at Ohio State last week.
But thanks to another huge day from quarterback Brian Lewerke and a passing game that is finding its rhythm, Michigan State (7-2, 5-1 Big Ten) handed Penn State coach James Franklin his 10th loss in 10 games against a ranked opponent on the road.
“You’ve got to give Michigan State, Coach Dantonio credit,” Franklin said. “They did a hell of a job today, handled some things better than we handled. … We didn’t win the field position battle, we didn’t win the turnover battle, and that to me is the story of the game. Turn the ball over three times, you only get one, especially on the road, you’re going to have a hard day, you’re going to have a long day.”
Lewerke was 33-for-56 for 400 yards and two touchdowns, the second straight week he threw for 400 yards or more after throwing for a program-record 445 last week. Felton Davis hauled in 12 passes for 181 yards, both career highs, while scoring on 33-yard touchdown in the last half of the second quarter. Darrell Stewart had five grabs for 65 yards and a touchdown while freshmen Cody White and Hunter Rison again made big plays.
Mark Dantonio talks about Michigan State's weather-delayed win over Penn State. Matt Charboneau, The Detroit News
White had a one-handed catch in the fourth-quarter while Rison had two catches to set up Michigan State’s third touchdown drive in the third quarter.
“Lewerke was on,” Dantonio said. “He was on from the beginning. He was throwing darts. You look at some guys, Hunter Rison with a couple of big catches, Felton with 12 catches, we’re 10-for-18 on third down and Cody White with a big catch.”
It was an offensive performance that helped a defense busy trying to contain two of the Big Ten’s top playmakers. The Spartans did a good job of containing running back Saquon Barkley, who ran for 63 yards and caught three passes for 33 yards.
Quarterback Trace McSorley, however, was effective. He threw for 381 yards and three touchdowns, the last to DeAndre Thompkins for 70 yards that put the Nittany Lions up, 24-21, on the final play of the third quarter. But McSorley also threw three interceptions, and the last one came after Michigan State had tied the game on a 32-yard field goal.
Matt Coghlin, Brian Lewerke talk about Michigan State's win over Penn State. Matt Charboneau, The Detroit News
It was interception No. 2 of the game for safety David Dowell and set up the winning drive.
“Turnovers. That’s the glaring number,” McSorley said. “I have to do better for our team. I did a very bad job today.”
Michigan State was driving in the second quarter when play was halted because of lightning. Penn State was up 14-7 on McSorley touchdown passes to DaeSean Hamilton and Saeed Blacknall while Michigan State had scored on Lewerke’s 7-yard pass to Stewart.
After the delay, Michigan State got stuffed on fourth-and-1 to turn the ball over, but the defense answered with a three-and-out. The Spartans offense then made the most of the opportunity, driving 69 yards in five plays to tie the game, 14-14, after Davis laid out to haul in a 33-yard touchdown pass from Lewerke with 3:54 left in the second quarter.
“See ball, get ball,” Davis said.
Michigan State got rolling midway through the third quarter thanks to some big throws from Lewerke. He hit Davis for 36 yards on a third-and-long, then connected with Rison for 26 yards on another third and long. After a 17-yard throw to Rison, LJ Scott scored on a 3-yard run to put Michigan State ahead, 21-14, with 7:25 to play in the third quarter.
Penn State (7-2, 4-2) answered with a 71-yard drive but failed to find the end zone, instead settling for a 26-yard field goal from Tyler Davis to cut Michigan State’s lead to 21-17 with 2:11 left in the third quarter.
After Michigan State was forced to punt on its next drive, Penn State closed the third quarter when McSorley hit Thompkins with a 70-yard touchdown pass after cornerback Josiah Scott fell on the play. It put the Nittany Lions ahead, 24-21, on the final play of the third quarter.
The Spartans came right back and tied the game on Coghlin’s first field goal and after turning the ball over in Penn State territory, got the final interception from Dowell to set up the final drive.
“We knew when he was going on the field we were going to make that field goal and win the game,” linebacker Chris Frey said. “We lined up on the sidelines like we do in every situation like that, lock arms with our brothers and get ready to celebrate because we know we’re gonna win that game at that point. We have full faith and trust in Matt’s ability and it was the perfect spot for him.”
And now Michigan State is in the perfect spot, heading to Ohio State next week with a chance to take control in the East.
“We’re building,” Dantonio said. “I’m excited about our future and I have been. We have a young football team that is very energetic, very much team-oriented and starting to become very sure of itself and that’s positive.”