Michigan State: Five things we learned vs. Purdue

Matt Charboneau
The Detroit News

Five takeaways from Matt Charboneau of The Detroit News following Michigan State's 23-13 victory over Purdue on Saturday.

Michigan State quarterback Rocky Lombardi threw for more than 300 yards on Saturday, but also used his feet to pick up several key first downs against Purdue.

QB's starting debut anything but rocky

We should probably pump the breaks on the narrative that didn’t take long to pop up, the one that says Michigan State would have won last week against Michigan if Rocky Lombardi would have played at quarterback instead of Brian Lewerke, who has an injured right shoulder. Facing the Michigan defense and the Purdue defense — one that is dead last in the Big Ten against the pass — are two very different prospects, especially for a player making his first career start.

That said, Lombardi provided a spark to the Michigan State offense that hasn’t existed for much of the season. Not all of that has been the fault of Lewerke, but it can’t be denied the Spartans’ offense had something in the 23-13 win over Purdue that’s hard to quantify. The numbers were good — Lombardi was 26-for-46 for 318 yards and two touchdowns — but were inflated a tad by the last 48-yard touchdown “pass” to Jalen Nailor. But if Darrell Stewart makes a couple of catches he normally does, those numbers are even more impressive. How Michigan State’s coaching staff handles the QB spot moving forward will be interesting. If Lewerke isn’t healthy, it’s an easy choice. But at 100 percent, it’s a tough choice, to be sure.

Disruptive 'D'

When Chuck Bullough arrived in the offseason to coach Michigan State’s defensive ends, he brought with him a mindset that he’s worked to ingrain in the entire defense. It’s his system that focuses on ball disruption and forces players to think differently and put as much emphasis on turnovers as it does bring down the ball carrier. It’s slowly been paying off for the Spartans. In Saturday’s victory over Purdue, Michigan State had three interceptions, including two in the fourth quarter. The first came from safety David Dowell on the opening drive of the game and set up Michigan State’s first field goal. A big hit and interception by linebacker Tyriq Thompson in the fourth quarter stalled a Purdue drive, and safety Matt Morrissey’s interception in the final minutes clinched the victory. Michigan State now has 11 interceptions, which ranks third in the Big Ten.

More: Stellar Spartans defense suppresses potent Boilermakers' attack

“That's what you need to do against Purdue,” defensive coordinator Mike Tressel said. “We needed to come up with big plays. That's what we needed to do, and the guys got it done. … We had three interceptions, and one to end the game, so yeah, I'm proud of the performance.”

On the mend

Injuries have been a big part of Michigan State’s season, but things are starting to turn in the right direction. Well, at least a little bit. Sophomore right tackle Jordan Reid was hurt in the fourth quarter Saturday and punter Tyler Hunt tore his ACL during the week and is out for the season. But the Spartans are getting healthy in some key spots. Stewart and Nailor are 100 percent, and both played key roles in the win over Purdue. And while Felton Davis was lost last week, sophomore Cody White was in uniform on Saturday and Mark Dantonio said he expects the sophomore back next week at Maryland.

Defensively, the Spartans could soon be getting back one of their best defensive backs from last season. Sophomore cornerback Josiah Scott injured his knee in preseason camp and returned to practice last week. He was available against Purdue and served his first-half suspension from a targeting call in last season’s Holiday Bowl. He should be close to 100 percent by next week, and could add an important element to a defense that has given up its share of passing yards but has become adept at turning the ball over.

Reversal of fortunes

Dantonio has won his share of big games in his 12 seasons as Michigan State’s coach. There’s Big Ten Championship games, bowl game victories and plenty over the best teams in the conference, including rivals Michigan and Ohio State. But after Saturday’s 23-13 win over Purdue, Dantonio said it might have been the most rewarding of his 105 with the Spartans. Not because moving to 5-3 on the season means all that much, but because of the position Michigan State was in entering the game. The injuries to the offense have been well-documented, but beyond that, not many people were giving the Spartans much of a shot to beat a team that had just whipped Ohio State and had won four straight.

For a lot of pundits, this was the beginning of Michigan State’s demise. But, like so many times in the past, Dantonio got his team to rebound and suddenly the fortunes have shifted. No longer does it seem like 2016 is happening again. Now, the prospect of eight or nine wins seems realistic as the Spartans — still a relatively young team — look to regain some momentum down the stretch and see if they can affect the Big Ten East race.

Pretty special

Michigan State is now on its third punter of the season. That, alone, shows how absurd the injuries have been this season. But through it all, the special teams once again were a strength Saturday, even with a muffed punt return in the first half. The Spartans don’t have many game-breakers in the return game, but they have been effective in every other aspect, as sophomore kicker Matt Coghlin kicked 43- and 48-yard field goals before his streak of consecutive makes ended at 18 when a 37-yarder was blocked. He added a 34-yarder in the third quarter. And punter Bryce Baringer, who was watching games from his dorm room early in the season, punted four times for an average of just 38.5 yards, but the coverage team contained Purdue’s Rondale Moore, who gained just 8 yards on two returns. It’s the part of game that often goes unnoticed, but Michigan State is keeping games from turning on special teams, an important part of the game when points are at a premium.


Twitter: @mattcharboneau