Piscataway, N.J. — Now everyone waits for the sport-jacketed bowl gurus to sort out some complexities and decide which schools are headed where for the holidays.
All that matters in East Lansing was sealed Saturday. Michigan State is back in the New Year’s Day conversation after a year in bowl exile.
The Spartans polished off a dreamy 2017 regular-season revival Saturday at High Point Solutions Stadium, whipping Rutgers, 40-7, to notarize a 9-3 season and perhaps set them up for a Jan. 1 finale at either of two Florida venues, the Citrus Bowl in Orlando, or the Outback Bowl in Tampa.
“You’ve got to run to those bowl games,” said Mark Dantonio, Michigan State’s head coach, who had become part-cheerleader in November, prodding his players to finish with a flourish and get a spotlight bowl ticket. “It’s very important — national TV. These things don’t come easily.”
In what passed for a football obligation Saturday, the Spartans step-by-step dismantled Rutgers, one of the Big Ten’s truly needy fraternities and a team that, as its 4-8 record suggests, never was going to be a physical match for MSU.
Time of possession confirmed as much. It was breathtakingly lopsided, with the Spartans holding onto the ball for 47 minutes, 50 seconds. The Scarlet Knights had it for 12 minutes and 10 seconds, about the length of a bad Hollywood marriage.
“I’ve had some games the other way,” said Dantonio who admitted he was stunned by numbers so overwhelming. “I've had some games the other way, but 31 plays for 112 yards, that's difficult to overcome.”
He was talking about Rutgers’ four-quarters of offense, or what passed for it. The Spartans ran 89 plays, good for 431 yards.
MSU’s scoring was evenly spread, with quarterback Brian Lewerke running for a touchdown, as did running back Gerald Holmes. Lewerke also tossed a 7-yard TD pass to freshman back Connor Heyward. The Spartans’ last TD came on a 3-yard Madre London run after Damion Terry, playing in his last regular-schedule game for the Spartans, relieved Lewerke.
Matt Coghlin handled Saturday’s remaining scoring chores with four extra-point kicks and four field goals in four tries: two from 26 yards, a bomb from 46, and another from 32.
And yet it was only 16-7 at halftime, mostly due to seven Spartans penalties and a handful of red-zone fizzles
“It’s a competitive football game,” said Dantonio, who made clear to his players any realities they hadn’t gotten from the scoreboard. “My message to our team was: ‘Let’s go. We’re hurting ourselves with penalties and we need to gear up for the second half.'
“It was a lot closer than you think. But we threw the ball a little more effectively in the second half. We ran the ball a little more effectively. The game separated in the second half with some big catches by Cody White and Felton Davis.”
Davis caught six Lewerke passes for 72 yards, while White had two for 42, with Darrell Steward grabbing five for 36.
Getting the passing game unclogged helped improve Lewerke’s mood, which at the break was on a par with his coach’s.
“I was pretty frustrated at halftime,” said the Arizona sophomore who threw for 222 yards (21-for-31, no interceptions) and ran for 56. “Probably the most frustrated in a game this season.”
It wasn’t only penalties, which three times saw false starts ruin TD drives that had pushed inside the Rutgers 10. Rutgers was stubborn early on pass defense. Similarly, the Spartans were getting only bite-sized chunks of rushing yardage. Early, anyway.
But the Scarlet Knights were squeezed, steadily, by MSU’s clawing and lane shutdowns. Of those 112 yards of total offense for Rutgers, a flabbergasting 14 came on the ground.
“So many guys who can make plays,” said senior linebacker Chris Frey, summing up an afternoon/evening Spartans defensive assault.
Frey and Co. had only one breakdown Saturday: blown coverage that Scarlet Knights quarterback Johnathan Lewis turned into a 42-yard touchdown pass three plays into the second quarter.
“One play I really don’t want to talk about,” said linebacker Joe Bachie, who lost his downfield man, Raheem Blackshear, a one-time MSU recruit and running back who got loose and snagged Lewis’ strike.
But, said Bachie, who has been a persistent assassin on a 2017 team carried so often by its defense, “it was a fun time out there with those guys.”
The merriment carried on with a pair of second-half interceptions, by Bachie and Josiah Scott. The turnovers were like a gavel pounding for most of Saturday’s scattered crowd (35,021) and seemed to send the brunt of them for their cars and a homebound jaunt down the New Jersey Turnpike.
Holmes led the Spartans with 59 rushing yards, and LJ Scott chipped in with 54 on 18 carries, one more testament to how challenged the Spartans can be running the ball.
They also could have throttled back on yellow flags. They were penalized nine times for 80 yards, with most of them coming in the first half. A string of false starts, an illegal formation, and a debatable clip on Cole Chewins sabotaged what might have been back-to-back TDs and early celebration sips among Spartan partiers back in East Lansing.
It seemed not to matter as MSU’s players, and Dantonio, stepped from Saturday’s field on a lovely November evening. Temperatures had hung mostly in the 50s with skies in such contrast to rain and cold and snow that for the Spartans had, in earlier weeks, become a Saturday staple.
Now, the team will take a break. Dantonio’s players will get a few days of rest before the bowl-game regimen begins. He’ll even give his assistant coaches a day off, he said.
He also won’t complain if, privately, anyone connected with this 9-3 pivot from last year’s 3-9 belly-flop savors a season that wasn’t championship-grade but was the essence of a football triumph.
“Part of me wants to say, it could have been 10-2,” Dantonio said. “But I don’t know what 10-2 gets you that 9-3 doesn’t right now.
“I’m very happy for our football team, for the players, their families — everybody.”
Including a head coach whose team is about to be reacquainted with a past habit: a Jan. 1 appointment, opponent yet to be determined.