East Lansing — The weather was miserable at Spartan Stadium on Saturday, but that’s starting to become old had for Michigan State.
The Spartans have had some of their best games this season in adverse conditions, so it was fitting its Senior Day matchup with Maryland started in a rainstorm that quickly turned to snow, creating conditions that were far from ideal.
But just like they have in several other situations this season, the Spartans proved to be adept at getting the job done as the conditions deteriorated. This time it was the running game that got rolling as No. 22 Michigan State beat Maryland, 17-7, in front of an announced crowd of 70,216 at Spartan Stadium.
“We had a little bit of everything out there on that field today,” Michigan State coach Mark Dantonio said. “The wind and rain and then it went to snow. The field (condition) dissipated pretty quickly so I was very, very proud of our football team. We got a big win and scratched it out.
“We scratch and claw for wins, that’s all I can tell you and I’m happy about the opportunity to play for nine wins next week.”
Michigan State (8-3, 6-2 Big Ten) will do that thanks to the way it ran the ball against Maryland. LJ Scott rushed for 147 yards on 29 carries as Michigan State gained 271 as a team. Senior Gerald Holmes added 64 yards on 11 carries while quarterback Brian Lewerke picked up 63 yards on five attempts.
Scott had a 1-yard touchdown while Lewerke scored on a 25-yard run as the Spartans came into the game with the intention of running the ball.
“First of all, I think it was critical to our success,” Dantonio said. “We weren’t throwing the ball very effectively, obviously. The weather had lot to do with that. I looked up there and the snow was coming down and it was difficult even see through the snow. Then as the game progressed it became more like we didn’t have to take the risk to throw the football. We had a three-possession lead, so it felt like let’s grind it out, get 4 or 5 yards and get first downs.
“That was directed form me. I didn’t want to take the risk of throwing the ball down the field and getting a turnover or something of that nature. (Running the ball was) very critical and LJ had a great game, made some good cuts and got vertical.”
While Lewerke was just 2-for-14 passing for 20 yards, throwing the ball didn’t prove to be necessary as Maryland (4-7, 2-6) had trouble moving the ball until midway through the fourth quarter when it got a 4-yard touchdown run form Lorenzo Harrison.
That sparked the Terps, who moved into Michigan State territory in the final three minutes as quarterback Max Bortenschlager got into a rhythm, finishing 13-for-25 for 121 yards. But the comeback attempt faltered when a 36-yard field-goal attempt from Henry Darmstadter sailed wide right.
Michigan State coach Mark Dantonio talks about the win over Maryland. Matt Charboneau, The Detroit News
“I thought we’ve just got to take advantage of the opportunities when they’re there and we didn’t,” Maryland coach D.J. Durkin said. “Once again, we started off slow, so we got ourselves behind, and with the conditions (being) the way they were, it was hard to move the ball and score a lot of points. I was proud of Max coming back into the fourth. We were able to throw the ball and move a little bit. We had some chances and we didn’t execute when we needed to.”
The Spartans, ranked 17th in the latest College Football Playoff rankings, entered the game with an outside chance to win the Big Ten East, but Ohio State’s victory over Illinois wiped that out. Michigan State closes the regular season next week at Rutgers with a chance to get to nine wins and a spot in a top bowl game.
“It’s an incredible feeling, going from a 3-9 season and an offseason like we did to be able to bounce back when no one expected it and hopefully go 9-3 this year,” said defensive end Kenny Willekes, who had two sacks on Saturday. “It’s just an incredible feeling and a testament to all the guys that continued to work and persevere through all the tough times.”
LJ Scott, Chris Frey, Kenny Willekes, Gerald Holmes talk about Michigan State's win over Maryland. Matt Charboneau, The Detroit News
The tough conditions were as much the story against the Terrapins, but the Spartans got rolling early. Scott and the offensive line led the way as Scott capped the Spartans’ first possession with a 1-yard touchdown run to give Michigan State a 7-0 lead with 7:48 left in the first quarter.
The Spartans went three-and-out on the next drive with three incomplete passes, forcing a return to the ground on the next possession as Scott carried six times on the eight-play drive that was finished off when quarterback Lewerke scampered 25 yards for the touchdown to put Michigan State ahead, 14-0, on the first play of the second quarter.
“We prepared for it all week,” Scott said. “The coaches did a great job preparing us for the weather this week. We didn’t like it. We hated going outside and practicing in the rain. That wasn’t good but at end of day it worked out in our favor and we got the job done.”
The Michigan State defense forced a fumble on the next drive that was recovered by Brandon Randle, but after Holmes ripped off a 13-yard run, the senior fumbled at the 1-yard line on the next play to stall the drive. The teams traded punts the rest of the way to halftime.
The second half featured plenty more punting as Michigan State extended the lead to 17-0 on a 27-yard field goal from Matt Coghlin with 1:32 left in the third quarter before Harrison got Maryland on the board with 9:50 to play in the fourth.
“I’m very excited about win No. 8,” Dantonio said. “It sets up win No. 9.”