Bob Wojnowski, Angelique S. Chengelis and Matt Charboneau preview the Michigan-Michigan State game in East Lansing on Saturday. The Detroit News
East Lansing — There was never a doubt for Brian Lewerke.
As Michigan State faced a third-down at the Penn State 25 last Saturday with less than 30 seconds on the clock and trailing by three points, the Spartans quarterback got the play call and knew exactly his next move.
With coach Mark Dantonio telling offensive coordinator Dave Warner to take a shot at the end zone, Warner called for fade patterns to the corner of the end zone for two outside wide receivers — Felton Davis to the left and Cam Chambers to the right.
Technically, Lewerke had options. But the second the play was called, both Lewerke and Davis knew where the ball was going.
“I knew 100 percent it was going to him,” Lewerke said.
“I told him to throw it up and give me a chance to make a play, and that’s what we did,” Davis said.
Lewerke threw a perfect back-shoulder pass to Davis, who adjusted, hauled the pass in and stepped around Penn State cornerback Amani Oruwariye and into the end zone for the winning touchdown with just 19 seconds left on the clock.
It was Davis’ second touchdown of the game and his eighth catch, numbers that are becoming standard for the 6-foot-4 senior. Plenty of that is because Michigan State’s receiving corps has been decimated by injuries. Sophomore Cody White is out long-term with a broken hand while junior Darrell Stewart Jr. and freshman Jalen Nailor have been out the better part of the last few weeks with Stewart seeing limited action two weeks ago against Northwestern.
But 100 percent or not, there seems little doubt that Davis is the difference maker among the Spartans receivers. White has been outstanding, Stewart is tough over the middle and Nailor may soon be the next game-breaker, but Davis has been the one living up to his nickname as “The Freak.”
“Felton is a freaking man among boys,” Lewerke said. “All you have to do is throw it up to him and he’ll get the job done.”
The Spartans realized early that Davis could be special as he saw action as a true freshman in 2015 in seven games, getting his only two catches in the Big Ten Championship game against Iowa and the College Football Playoff against Alabama.
Injuries hampered Davis as a sophomore in 2016, but he broke out last season with 55 receptions for 776 yards and nine touchdowns while earning second-team All-Big Ten honors.
That production has continued this season as Davis has 31 grabs for 474 yards and four touchdowns. His workload has increased as his fellow receivers have dropped, something that has led to him scoring two touchdowns in each of the last two games with one coming on a 48-yard run.
“We're going to get the ball to people that we need to get the ball to,” Michigan State coach Mark Dantonio said. “I thought we did a great job last week saying, ‘OK, here is Felton, we're missing this guy, that guy, let's get the ball to him a little bit more.’ We always have done that and we always will continue to do that, find ways — every football team tries to find ways.
“So we go into every football game and say, ‘How are we going to get the ball to this individual X number of times?’”
Whether Davis gets any help this week as No. 24 Michigan State hosts No. 6 Michigan at noon on Saturday remains to be seen. White will be out for sure while Stewart and Nailor could return.
Either way, the Wolverines understand how difficult guarding Davis can be but don’t plan to change things up significantly.
“I think, they have a lot of good players,” safeties coach Chris Partridge said. “They’ve got a bunch of good receivers and the running backs are running hard and the quarterback makes a lot of plays
“It’s hard (to focus on one player) because once you give attention to one guy then it opens up other stuff. So I think (defensive coordinator) Don (Brown) is real well-rounded, a ‘Hey, let’s-take-care-of-business-type guy’ more so than ‘Hey, we got to look over here and get tricked over there.’ We’re gonna stay in our defensive scheme and just hope our players make the plays.”
The Wolverines enter the game as the No. 2 defense in the nation and are No. 1 against the pass, allowing just 129.1 yards a game. So, they’ll have their eyes on Davis.
“He’s a tough receiver,” cornerback Ambry Thomas said. “He’s pretty good, honestly. We’ve just got to work on our technique hard this week, and we’ve just got to try to get after them fast.”
There’s no doubt this will be the toughest matchup so far this season for Davis and the Spartans’ offense. But they’re confident “The Freak” is up to the challenge.
“I love Felton,” senior safety Khari Willis said. “He puts it all on the line. Felton is an animal.”