Once an outsider, MSU's Lewerke in middle of rivalry

Matt Charboneau
The Detroit News
Michigan State quarterback Brian Lewerke

East Lansing — Brian Lewerke is like most players who aren’t from Michigan.

The Michigan State quarterback grew up in Phoenix where big-time college rivalries started with Southern Cal and UCLA or Cal-Stanford, something along those lines.

So, the Michigan-Michigan State game was something he just kind of watched on TV. Even after Lewerke was recruited by both the Spartans and the Wolverines, it took some time to truly understand when he first got to East Lansing.

“If you're not from Michigan, Ohio really, you don't really understand it till you get around them,” Lewerke said this week.

He was around in 2015 but didn’t travel to Ann Arbor for the Spartans’ win that came on one of the most memorable plays in college football history. But by the time the rivalry came around again in 2016 — with Michigan State suffering through a historically bad season — Lewerke started to understand. He had started the previous two games but came on in relief in the fourth quarter, bringing some life to the offense.

One play, however, his season ended with a broken leg. Long before that, though, Lewerke had started to sense the animosity.

“Yeah, it's a rivalry game. You know it. You feel it throughout the week of practice, and you know, the guys from Michigan, it's a special game for them,” Lewerke said. “It's just a different feel. It's a different way of preparing, I guess, because you know how much this game means to everyone.”

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By the time Michigan State got another shot at Michigan in 2017, Lewerke was the full-time starter and he wasted no time mixing it up. His diving touchdown in the first half last season — complete with his helmet nearly getting knocked off — opened the scoring for the Spartans as they went on to upset the Wolverines.

Now, as No. 24 Michigan State once again finds itself the underdog against No. 6 Michigan in a series it has dominated the last decade, Lewerke will play a vital role in the outcome of the game. He did so last season even though he only threw for 94 yards in nasty weather. However, he did have the rushing touchdown and threw a screen pass to Madre London for the other. He also didn’t turn the ball over, a crucial stat in this game.

It’s something he hasn’t done well with this season, throwing seven interceptions and losing a pair of fumbles in six games. But Lewerke believes the loss to Northwestern two weeks ago was a wake-up call for himself and the entire team.

“Just coming off the loss, there was a lot of stuff we needed to improve on,” Lewerke said. “That loss honestly was one of the better things that could have happened to us, just to figure out what was wrong and figure out what we needed to fix. I think that kind of showed last week when we came out and got a big win on the road.”

That big win at Penn State included another Lewerke interception, but that came on a tipped pass that bounced off the injured hand of sophomore receiver Cam Chambers. Lewerke finished with 259 yards passing and two touchdowns, though he came close to a couple more interceptions.

He’ll be challenged even more so this week as Michigan has the top passing defense in the nation.

“They like to play a lot of cover one, man stuff, like to blitz obviously,” Lewerke said of the Wolverines. “They are a very aggressive defense. You got a taste of that last year, for really the first time. It will take preparation, preparing for the blitzes, make sure you see them coming and make sure you know how to pick them up and change protection and stuff like that. Just get the ball out quickly.”

The protection will be key for the Spartans. When Lewerke has struggled this season it’s often been when he’s under pressure. The banged-up offensive line had some continuity last week for the first time, something that Lewerke found comforting.

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“It helps being able to come into the huddle and look at the same guys every time up front,” Lewerke said. “I think the more they play together, the more they just are — it's easier to play together, I guess, just because you know them, how they play, their style of play.”

While Lewerke will need to be on target, what makes him unique is his ability to run the ball, either on designed plays or when pass protection breaks down. He’s scored a pair of rushing touchdowns this season after rushing for 559 yards and five touchdowns last season.

That ability to make something happen with his feet has the attention of the Wolverines.

“He’s a very talented quarterback,” Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh told 97.1 FM this week. “When you can throw the ball really well, and you can run it really well, and he’s got a runner’s knack — he’s really slippery in the pocket — it’s going to take everybody being in their rush lanes and not giving him a gap, because he’ll find it.

“He’s got the ability to throw the ball downfield. Very good touch. He’s a very accurate guy. He’s a competitive, winning quarterback. He’s got that winning factor. I’ve always thought that about him.”

Whether he has it again this week will be critical for the Spartans as they attempt to keep pace in the Big Ten East. There’s no doubt momentum was built with last week’s win at Penn State. The question is whether that carries over against Michigan.

Lewerke believes it will.

“It always helps to come off a win, any game you're playing, especially a big win like we had last week,” Lewerke said. “The confidence is always high coming off a win like that. Any opponent we would be playing this week — obviously it's Michigan — but we'll be ready 100 percent.”

Michigan at Michigan State

Kickoff: Noon Saturday, Spartan Stadium, East Lansing

TV/radio: Fox/950, 760

Records: Michigan 6-1, 4-0 Big Ten; Michigan State 4-2, 2-1

Line: Michigan by 7


Twitter: @mattcharboneau