'Doubt us?' Reeling MSU edges Penn State when chips are down
State College, Pa. — Michigan State’s players all had a poker chip when they arrived at Beaver Stadium on Saturday, and when they walked into the locker room, they slammed them on the table.
It was all in an effort to regain an attitude that has served the Spartans well over coach Mark Dantonio’s tenure.
“We play better when we’ve got that chip-on-the-shoulder attitude,” senior wide receiver Felton Davis said. “We go into the weight room and our shirts have that chip on the side of it. That’s what we carry with us all the time, our lunch box. Just going to work and that’s how we like it.
“So everyone wants to doubt us? Just keep doing it.”
Someday, the critics might learn.
Michigan State provided more evidence Saturday that the chip is alive and well, rallying in the fourth quarter and beating No. 8 Penn State, 21-17, in front of 106,685 at Beaver Stadium. Davis caught the winning pass — a 25-yard fade from Brian Lewerke — with just 19 seconds left on the clock.
It was the second straight season the Spartans handed a top-10 Penn State team a crushing loss in the final seconds after winning on the final play last season.
“I can’t say enough about our football team,” Dantonio said. “There are moments like this when you see people gear up, get themselves ready to go. I can’t describe it to you, really. I’m very proud of this team and how they handled things, how they kept playing and playing. It wasn’t perfect.
“We talked about when you’re at odds with things, rising up may be the biggest challenge, but it also might be your biggest triumph.”
Where this triumph ranks for Michigan State (4-2, 2-1 Big Ten) will be easier to gauge at the end of the season. For now, it keeps the Spartans in the Big Ten East chase with Michigan coming to town next week.
To do so, the Spartans went for broke, emptying the playbook with a fake punt, a halfback pass and a fake field goal. The fake field goal — a pass from Lewerke to defensive tackle Raequan Williams that was broken up at the last second — looked like it might be the difference in the game.
But Michigan State forced a punt and got another shot, one that appeared to evaporate when Lewerke was sacked with the clock rolling under two minutes. Instead of going for it on fourth-and-10 from the MSU 40, Dantonio opted to punt, a move that seemed radical in how conservative it was.
“If we go for it on fourth-and-10, I felt like the game was over if we didn’t make it,” Dantonio said.
So, with three timeouts in his pocket, Dantonio told his defense to get a stop and give the offense one last chance.
“He made the ball and we told him once he made it we got his back,” safety Khari Willis said. “Chances make champions and we were able to come up with the win.”
And the stop as cornerback Justin Layne forced Penn State quarterback Trace McSorley out of bounds a yard from the first down on a third-down scramble, forcing a punt and saving a timeout.
The Spartans got it back with 1:19 on the clock. Connor Heyward had two catches on the drive while Laress Nelson, playing because of the wave of injuries to the receivers, had two grabs, including an 11-yarder that gave MSU a first down at the Penn State 33. Two plays later, Lewerke hit Davis for the winner.
“I knew we could line up and kick a field goal and go into overtime,” Dantonio said. “So Coach (Dave) Warner asked what I wanted to run. I said, ‘Why don’t we just throw a touchdown pass? Go to the end zone? So that’s what we did.”
They did, and in the process, a season that was headed in the wrong direction suddenly has hope.
“It definitely reveals character,” Williams said. “That’s Spartan Dawg football. That chip and swagger we carry to every game, it means everything.”
For Penn State, (4-2, 1-2) the loss was a crusher. For the second straight season, the Nittany Lions followed a heartbreaking loss to Ohio State by falling to the Spartans.
“We have to give Michigan State credit,” Penn State coach James Franklin said. “We didn't do what we needed to do to win the game. We lost in too many critical situations.
“We had a chance to put away a proud program and a good program and a very good football coach. We had a chance to put them away several times on offense, on defense, and on special teams and we didn't do it. We let them stay in the game.”
They stayed in the game because they limited McSorley to 192 yards passing and 37 on the ground. Running back Miles Sanders broke free twice and had 162 yards for the game, but that was about it for the Nittany Lions.
Penn State hit the first big play when Sanders burst through the Michigan State defense for a career-long 78 yards to the Spartans 5. On the next play, McSorley hit KJ Hamler with an easy 5-yard pass for the touchdown to give the Nittany Lions a 7-0 lead with 5:03 left in the first quarter.
Michigan State evened things up later in the half thanks to some trick plays. First, it was a fake punt that resulted in a 26-yard run from Heyward. Two plays later, Heyward took a handoff in the backfield then lofted a pass to Cam Chambers for 36 yards to the Penn State 1.
Penn State stuffed Michigan State on three straight runs, but an unsportsmanlike conduct penalty gave the Spartans new life and they cashed in with La’Darius Jefferson’s 1-yard touchdown run to tie the game at 7 with 13:25 left in the second quarter.
The teams traded punts on each of their next two drives before Sanders broke free again, this time for 48 yards as he slipped through several tackles to give the Nittany Lions a 14-7 lead with 4:33 left in the first half.
Michigan State evened the score at 14 with 6:10 left in the third quarter when Lewerke connected with Davis on a 20-yard pass to the corner of the end zone. The score came after Michigan State held Penn State on fourth down at its own 36. Five plays later, the game was tied.
After Penn State missed a 37-yard field goal late in the third quarter, the Nittany Lions retook the lead on a 20-yard field goal from Jake Pinegar, putting Penn State ahead, 17-14, with 9:21 left.
Michigan State looked like it was lining up for a potential tying field goal on its next drive before the ill-fated fake. But a late decision to punt worked out as Michigan State got the ball back with 1:19 to play and went in for the winning score in eight plays.
Davis finished with eight catches for 100 yards while Lewerke finished with 259 yards on 24-for-52 passing while Michigan State outgained Penn State, 418-397.
“This shows the heart and character of our football team,” Willis said. “We had a couple adverse situations in the first few weeks that some didn’t expect, but we were able to come out and bounce back against a championship-worthy opponent. It shows the heart and character of not only us defensively, but offensively going on the field with a minute-plus to go and coming out with not just three but seven.
"Now we’re looking to build off that.”