'By no means are we there yet': MSU holds off CMU
East Lansing — Michigan State had a chance to put a team away in the second half again on Saturday, but instead of run away with an easy win, the Spartans made things interesting at the end.
One final drive offensively helped secure a 31-20 victory over Central Michigan at Spartan Stadium, but it came only after a 28-point lead was trimmed in the fourth quarter thanks to a trick play, an early onside kick and some less than inspiring play from the defense in the final quarter.
“I continue to say nothing is ever easy,” Michigan State coach Mark Dantonio said. “We get ahead a little bit and think things are going well then it gets interesting, but that’s football for you. I thought we played tight in the first half, played extremely well in the second quarter ant into the third, controlled the line of scrimmage from a defensive standpoint, then in the fourth quarter it got interesting.”
Interesting thanks to an onside kick followed Central Michigan’s first touchdown of the game early in the fourth quarter that led to a field goal and thanks to a halfback pass from Jonathan Ward to former quarterback Tony Poljan that cut the deficit to two scores with 6:44 to play.
But that’s when an offense that still struggled to find much rhythm on Saturday put the game away by picking up five first downs to run the clock out.
“We trust the guys to go out there and seal it but I am definitely not happy with the fact that we gave up points in the fourth quarter, I mean, that shouldn't happen,” MSU defensive coordinator Mike Tressel said. “This is what we actually talked about at halftime, we need to play our best in the fourth quarter since we have not done that yet this year.”
It’s hard to criticize the defense too much. The Spartans (3-1, 1-0 Big Ten) held the Chippewas to 245 total yards and were the aggressor early in the game, getting two interceptions that led to 10 points.
The first was from safety David Dowell that set up the first touchdown drive. The second turnover was an interception from cornerback Justin Layne that led to a field goal, giving MSU a 17-3 lead at halftime.
“I think that was huge, you know for Justin to get his first interception under his belt, and for me as well and also that spring boarded the offense, so that's big,” Dowell said. “Turnovers, we've been doing pretty well with turnovers, so we just got to continue to get better.”
While the defense continued to play well — it allowed only 63 yards rushing and recorded three sacks — the offense continues to be a work in progress.
Junior quarterback Brian Lewerke was only 16-for-25 for 185 yards and threw an interception in the end zone, but he scored a pair of rushing touchdowns for the Spartans. Freshman La’Darius Jefferson ran for 56 yards and had a 2-yard TD run while sophomore Connor Heyward also had a 2-yard touchdown run.
Michigan State ran for 160 yards, the second-most in a game this season.
“Obviously, it has been a situation where in the first couple of weeks where we had nothing running as well as we needed to,” co-offensive coordinator Dave Warner said. “It has been an emphasis and wanted to commit this game to running it and I think we did. I think we did a decent job. I think our guys up front got some movement. I think our backs ran with more purpose and I think that is something to build on.
“By no means are we there yet with the run game but it's a step in the right direction so we need to keep going that direction.”
Central Michigan (1-4) showed some life late in the game, getting a 10-yard touchdown pass from Tommy Lazzaro to Julian Hicks early in the fourth quarter followed by a field goal from Ryan Tice, his second of the game, after the Chippewas recovered the onside kick.
The Chippewas then pulled within 31-20 off a trick play with running back Jonathan Ward throwing 29 yards to Tony Poljan for a touchdown with 6:44 to play.
However, Michigan State ran the clock out from there.
“Obviously disappointed with the outcome,” Central Michigan coach John Bonamego said. “Thought we dug ourselves a hole early in the first half. Didn't come here to play a game, we came here to win a game and we didn't do that. However, I'm very proud of the fight in our football team and how they came out and played in the second half and made a game of it. Made some plays and made it an interesting game. Just didn't have enough, quite enough left at the end to pull it out.”
The Chippewas struck first with a 40-yard field goal from Tice on the opening drive, but they couldn’t muster much from there, getting just three first downs in the first half. It wasn’t much better for the Spartans, who punted couldn’t get much going on their end, punting twice and having one drive end with an interception from Lewerke in the end zone, his fifth of the season and seventh total turnover.
But the defense took over, starting with sophomore linebacker Brandon Bouyer-Randle hitting Lazzaro on a third-down pass that was intercepted by Dowell and returned to the CMU 35. Four plays later, Lewerke ran in from 3 yards out to give Michigan State a 7-3 lead with 10:57 left in the second quarter.
Michigan State got the ball back with just more than five minutes left in the half and Lewerke capped things off with a 5-yard touchdown run to put the Spartans up, 14-3, with 2:23 left in the second quarter. After Layne intercepted Lazzaro on the next possession, MSU added a 33-yard field goal from Matt Coghlin to take a 17-3 lead with 29 seconds left in the half.
Michigan State took the opening kick of the second half and marched 58 yards on eight plays, capping the drive with a 2-yard run from Heyward to take a 24-3 lead with 10:24 left in the third quarter. After a three-and-out on defense, the Spartans extended their lead to 31-3 with 4:18 left in the third quarter after Jefferson scored on a 2-yard run for his first career touchdown before Central Michigan made its late push.
“I like to say we play with grit, that we somehow find a way,” Dantonio said. “We've won a lot of close games here, and we'll come and we'll play. But, we have to play better in certain areas, there's no question about that. We need to roll up our sleeves and get to work on Monday.”