Fresh perspective: Lombardi delivers for MSU in win over Purdue
East Lansing — There was a common theme around Michigan State this week, a decision to ignore what happened last week against Michigan, the growing injury list and the building skepticism over where the Spartans’ season was heading.
Still reeling from the loss last week and playing far from full strength, Michigan State was after one thing Saturday against Purdue almost as much as a win.
It was respect.
“We had to get back off the mat, get back in the flow of things,” junior cornerback and now part-time receiver Justin Layne said. “The coaches instill in us to keep fighting. We kind of had that underdog mentality. Just keep pushing, keep fighting back.
“This game was about respect. We wanted to get the win, but it was more about respect and getting back on the map.”
Whether the Spartans did that in the eyes of anyone outside their building is tough to say, but after Saturday’s 23-13 victory over Purdue in front of 72,657 at Spartan Stadium, there’s no doubting what the feeling was in the Michigan State locker room.
Coming off a deflating loss last week to Michigan, the Spartans faced the prospect of bouncing back against arguably the hottest team in the Big Ten. The Boilermakers had won four straight and were coming off a dominating victory over Ohio State, suddenly finding themselves tied atop the Big Ten West.
Michigan State (5-3, 3-2 Big Ten) was forced to start redshirt freshman Rocky Lombardi at quarterback as Brian Lewerke nursed an injured shoulder, and the prospects looked bleak.
Rather than crumble, however, Lombardi thrived, and with him, so did the Spartans. Lombardi finished 26-for-46 for 318 yards and two touchdowns while running for a big first down in the final three minutes. The banged-up receiving corps got touchdown catches from Darrell Stewart Jr. and Jalen Nailor while Brandon Sowards had a career-high six receptions. The defense was huge all game, as it has been most of the season, forcing three turnovers and intercepting two passes in the fourth quarter, the last from safety Matt Morrissey to end any comeback hopes.
“This could be as rewarding a win in our time here,” said coach Mark Dantonio, who now has 105 of them. “We needed to get up off the mat and five wins, one more puts us to a bowl game. Everyone was selling us short. We had the ‘poor me’s’ and we got a win. And that’s sports. That’s what makes athletics unique. Those intangibles are difficult to measure.”
The intangibles have been the difference this season as Michigan State is playing far from full strength on offense. Lewerke was out, as were receivers Cody White, Felton Davis, Laress Nelson and C.J. Hayes while center Matt Allen was the latest offensive lineman to watch from the sidelines.
But the Spartans found a way to pile up 426 yards and pick up 26 first downs, much of that thanks to the poise of Lombardi.
“Obviously, his performance was very good today,” co-offensive coordinator Dave Warner said. “I thought he kept his cool, he was in control. That's the biggest thing, he was in control. Nothing's ever going to be perfect out there. There were some screw ups, but he was always in control and never looked flustered and made plays.”
While Lombardi was making them, the Boilermakers (4-4, 3-2) were having their struggles. The Purdue offense that entered the game averaging more than 514 yards managed just 135 yards in the first half and ended with 339.
Quarterback David Blough was 29-for-49 for 277 yards but threw three interceptions. Rondale Moore had seven catches for 74 yards for the Boilermakers, who ran for just 62 yards.
“They deserved to win. They executed better than us,” Purdue coach Jeff Brohm said. “I thought they played harder and made fewer mistakes than us. It is a good learning experience for our team. That's why we say it's a one-game season. We did not get ready to play this game and come out and do the things necessary to win. We have to go back and fix those and play better next week, but I have to give credit to Michigan State and Coach Dantonio. They did a good job.”
Michigan State struck first thanks to an interception from safety David Dowell, which set up a 43-yard field goal from Matt Coghlin to give the Spartans a 3-0 lead with 11:07 to play in first quarter.
Purdue took advantage of a muffed punt on the next possession and tied the score, 3-3, on a 28-yard field goal by Spencer Evans with 8:11 left in the first quarter. The Spartans answered with a 48-yard field goal from Coghlin to go ahead, 6-3, with 3:23 left in the first quarter but Purdue evened things up with 6:33 to play in the second quarter when Evans booted a 35-yard field goal.
The teams traded punts late in the first half before the Spartans took over at their 13 with 2:22 to play. Lombardi then engineered a nine-play drive that went 87 yards and ended with the redshirt freshman’s first career touchdown pass, an 11-yarder to Stewart that gave Michigan State a 13-6 lead with 56 seconds left in the half.
“You don't win without that drive, really,” Dantonio said.
Michigan State added to its lead with Coghlin’s third field goal, a 34-yarder that put the Spartans up 16-6 with 3:08 left in the third quarter. It came after Coghlin’s streak of 18 straight made field goals ended on the previous drive as his 37-yarder was blocked. Purdue responded, though, marching 74 yards in just 2:26, cutting the Michigan State lead to 16-13 with 35 seconds left in the third quarter after a 1-yard touchdown run from Terry Wright.
Purdue kept pushing, but the Michigan State defense took over. First, Tyriq Thompson intercepted a pass deep in MSU territory before Mike Panasiuk blocked a potential tying field goal. After Nailor’s 48-yard touchdown catch, Morrissey ended things with his interception.
Now, Michigan State heads to Maryland next week, reminding those in the Big Ten it won’t go quietly.
“Coach D told us, that as Spartan Dawgs some people will doubt you and some people will count you out,” Stewart said. “But at the same time, you got to be able to trust your family which is our team and come out and push hard and go get the win. That's exactly what we did today.”