Piscataway, N.J. — This, in part, is why a Michigan State coaching staff can feel upbeat about 2018.
The Spartans not only are senior-deprived, with scads of starters and backups intact, they persist in having more and more youngsters share in the workload, as was the case Saturday when they pounded Rutgers, 40-7, at High Point Solutions Stadium.
Eleven Spartans caught passes: Felton Davis, Darrell Stewart, Cody White, Matt Sokol, LJ Scott, Noah Davis, Cam Chambers, Madre London, Gerald Holmes, Trishton Jackson, and even Connor Heyward, a freshman from Suwanee, Georgia, whose late father, Craig (Ironhead) Heyward, was a local prep star before he went on to lustrous years at Pitt and in the NFL.
Brian Lewerke appreciated the pass-target smorgasbord as he threw 31 times, completing 22.
“It says how many playmakers we’ve got,” Lewerke said. “We’ve got guys that can make plays everywhere, whether it’s a receiver, tight end, or running back. My lone touchdown pass was to a running back today (Heyward, 7 yards). So, it just shows how versatile everybody is.”
The Spartans also had eight players listed as rushers, including Damion Terry, a senior back-up quarterback, who carried three times late after Lewerke had been excused.
Holmes had 59 yards, with Lewerke prancing for 56, and Scott 54. London had 22 yards and a TD, while Heyward carried once for 7 yards. Freshmen receivers Hunter Rison and Laress Nelson were also credited with one carry each.
He is one of those rare presences on this 2017 team, a senior.
Gerald Holmes was aboard for last year’s nightmare and might have been forgiven for simply settling for a fringe bowl ticket in his final Spartans season.
“It was a goal, but not an unreasonable goal,” he said, recalling last summer and ideas, at least in fans’ minds, that a simple, minimalist, bowl-eligible season with six victories would be considered a triumph.
“We weren’t going to sell ourselves short,” said the running back from Flint Carman Ainsworth. “But this definitely will be appreciated. To experience what we went through last year was something people don’t want go through.”
He looked, at first blush, as if he were sporting a Halloween mask that had survived last month’s frightful festival.
Chris Frey was wearing lampblack that symmetrically stretched from his eyes, across his face, and down his jawline until it met chromatically with his dark beard.
The Spartans are going to miss him, even if opposing offenses won’t. He played his last regular-season game Saturday for the Spartans and will wrap up a splendid stint at linebacker in MSU’s upcoming bowl game.
Frey had a pair of tackles and a pass break-up on a day Spartan defenders put Rutgers in shackles, holding the Scarlet Knights to 112 total yards, and only 14 rushing.
“I think they told us 35 plays total in the game,” said Frey, quoting Rutgers offensive stats that were slightly off — the Scarlet Knights had only 31 offensive plays. ”It just felt like every quarter kept getting shorter and shorter.”
Frey is among senior statesmen Spartans who insist they saw this 2017 bounce-back brewing. There was something about this. Their passion. Their skill, surprising given the group’s overall youth.
“From the beginning, back at media day when I was first doing interviews, I had a gut feeling about this team and the guys — that we were all in this together,” Frey said. “We had been through the deepest of waters and we were on our way up. There was only one way for us to go.”
Frey, who played at Upper Arlington High in Columbus, Ohio, is pondering a pro football future while holding a simultaneous thought about coaching. He expects 2017 will provide some future perspective, and maybe some inspiration he can cite if that coaching gig arrives.
“To be able to say we flipped it and went 9-3,” he said, contrasting 2017 with last year’s 3-9 debacle, “is just an unbelievable accomplishment for this team. And for this program.”
Bachie has a ball
He didn’t care to reflect on MSU’s one super-serious defensive bungle. It came when he lost track of running back Raheem Blackshear in the second quarter, allowing Blackshear to traipse downfield and snag a 42-yard touchdown pass from Rutgers quarterback Johnathan Lewis.
But if that was the worst thing that happened to MSU’s defense Saturday — and it was — sophomore linebacker Joe Bachie could live with a gaffe when he and his teammates otherwise forged an astounding day of defense.
All anyone had to do was check those dizzying time-of-possession numbers: 47 minutes and 50 seconds for the Spartans, a measly 12 minutes and 10 seconds for Rutgers.
“We were fresh the whole game,” Bachie said, acknowledging that big leads, and too much leisure on the sidelines, aren’t always a defense’s friend. “People can get lazy on the sidelines — not stay focused, not stay in the game. But we stayed in the game and finished what we started.”
Does Dantonio win?
There is scuttlebutt, at least this side of Madison, Wisconsin, that a certain coach from Michigan State might get more than a few votes for Big Ten Coach of the Year.
Mark Dantonio’s players are, no surprise, saying amen.
“How he handled this whole offseason and everything that went on — he’s done a great job,” Bachie said. “I hope he gets it.
If there were an East Division plaque, Dantonio probably crushes it.
But the Badgers will argue heartily, and with merit, that a coach who helped them to an unbeaten season makes Paul Chryst a unanimous choice.
Ballots from East Lansing might reflect different thinking, but Chryst and Dantonio are the obvious division favorites, with Chryst’s flawless season making him the probable victor.