'Play to win': Spartans dig deep into bag of trick plays

Matt Charboneau
The Detroit News
Penn State safety Garrett Taylor, right, knocks the ball away from Michigan State defensive tackle Raequan Williams.

State College, Pa. — Mark Dantonio has never been afraid to pull the trigger on a trick play.

And with Michigan State’s season on the brink Saturday afternoon at Penn State, the Spartans coach decided there was no point leaving anything deep in the playbook, calling a fake punt and a fake field goal while also utilizing a halfback pass.

While the Spartans didn’t hit on all of them, they did on enough in a 21-17 victory over No. 8 Penn State at Beaver Stadium.

“We are going to play to win,” Dantonio said, summing up the reasoning behind the play calls.

The first two paid off well for the Spartans (4-2, 2-1 Big Ten). Late in the first quarter as Michigan State faced a fourth-and-6 from the Penn State 34, it was the fake punt that Dantonio dialed up with running back Connor Heyward taking the direct snap and racing 26 yards for the first down.

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After a 3-yard rush from La’Darius Jefferson, Heyward took a handoff in the backfield and lofted a pass to Cam Chambers for 36 yards that set the Spartans up at the Penn State 1. Jefferson then scored on a 1-yard run to tie the game at 7.

“We practiced the fake punt this week. We just put it in and when Coach D said that we were going to run it, I believed him but I didn't really know if we were going to run it or not but we just had to stay ready,” Heyward said. “The fake pass, we ran that in practice once, we ran it on the one defense and I almost threw an interception and I didn't know we were gonna run it. I decided to throw it up and I guess they believed in me to make a play.”

While those plays worked, the fake field goal didn’t go as well. It also could have backfired if Michigan State didn’t come back and win. Instead, it simply goes down as one that almost worked.

Trailing by three and facing a fourth-and-6 from the Penn State 22 inside six minutes to play, Dantonio opted to have Lewerke, the holder, throw to defensive tackle Raequan Williams. It nearly worked, but the ball was knocked away by Penn State's Garrett Taylor at the last second.

“I was excited,” Williams said. “We practiced it all week and I knew what the play could be. But man, good defensive play by the guy. Great recovery. I was thinking touchdown. I thought I was wide open.”

The Michigan State defense, however, did its job by getting the ball back to the offense.

“We are just going to keep playing,” Dantonio said. “We are going to play to win. Didn't want to play to line up and tie it. Quite honestly, I felt like Penn State was too explosive, and (Trace) McSorley creating too many loose plays, and eventually they would find their way back down the field. At least it put them in a different mode of operation with four minutes to go.

“But I just wanted to play to win, and I thought we had an opportunity for it.”


Twitter: @mattcharboneau