Michigan State senior class ends four-year roller-coaster ride

Matt Charboneau
The Detroit News
Spartan tight end Matt Sokol (81) celebrates after he grabed a second quarter pass from Rocky Lombardi for a touchdown.

East Lansing — It was Matt Sokol’s final game at Spartan Stadium, so the fifth-year senior was determined to make it count.

With a frustrating season for the offense culminating Saturday against Rutgers, Sokol played a vital role in Michigan State’s 14-10 victory, scoring his first touchdown of the season on an 18-yard pass from Rocky Lombardi in the second quarter, then throwing a key block on Cody White’s 22-yard touchdown run in the fourth quarter.

“First of all, I was really happy to see no flags on the play,” Sokol said of his touchdown grab. “I have gone through so many ups and downs throughout my career, lot of highs and lots of lows. It just felt great to have one go your way. It feels great to have that opportunity to go out with all the guys that I have been here with for four or five years. Been through a lot with this team this year, and I'm so proud of how we fought the whole game and found a way to win.”

It was just two weeks ago that Sokol appeared to catch a touchdown on a pass from White. However, the original play was supposed to be a throwback to Lombardi, and when that was covered, and White threw to Sokol, an offensive lineman was illegally downfield.

This one counted, and it was the perfect way for Sokol to end his five seasons at Spartan Stadium.

“I had a lot of mixed emotions there,” Sokol said. “It's been such a privilege and an honor to represent this university and play here for five years. All the other seniors can attest to that and feel the same way. It's an unbelievable feeling, and I have so much gratitude for Coach (Mark) Dantonio for allowing me and giving me the privilege to play here. It changed my life and all our seniors' lives for the better, we all have gone through unbelievable experiences here from the highs and lows of college football. I love this university and I love this program and I'm very thankful.”

It was a similar feeling for all 18 seniors who played their final home game.

Captain Khari Willis did his best to focus on the game, and afterward, still was just starting to process the realization he wouldn’t play again in Spartan Stadium.

“It’s very surreal,” Willis said. “I kissed the Spartan head (at midfield). That just showed how much this program meant to us. I tried to take it all in and tried to control it, as well. It’s starting to hit me. I’ll let emotion flow a little bit later.”

The senior class improved its record to 32-19 with one game to go. Along the way they were part of plenty of highs and lows. In 2015, Michigan State won the Big Ten and reached the College Football Playoffs before falling to 3-9 the following season.

The Spartans bounced back in 2017 with 10 wins and now this class finishes its final regular season with seven wins, looking for an eighth in the bowl game.

“A lot of those guys came as freshmen and played as freshmen,” Dantonio said. “Andrew Dowell, Grayson Miller, Khari Willis, just to think of a few, and we went to the playoffs that year and they had that experience. They started in games; those three guys started in games as true freshmen. We got guys who were at the Baylor game the year before. You've even got Jon Reschke who was at the Rose Bowl (in 2013). So they've had a lot of great experiences; a lot of those guys had great experiences.

“They've done an outstanding job and I think we have 10 guys graduating mid-year, some have already graduated. I'd say the majority of those guys are all going to graduate; the rest of them will graduate in the spring. They've done an outstanding job.”

Extra points

The touchdown pass to Sokol in the second quarter ended a touchdown drought of 153 minutes, 56 seconds for the Spartans.

The last time they had scored a touchdown was when Connor Heyward ripped off an 80-yard run with 11 minutes to play in the win over Maryland. After that, Michigan State was held without a touchdown in losses to Ohio State and Nebraska.

… The official attendance on Saturday was announced at 64,951. It was the lowest since Michigan State drew 64,807 against Minnesota on Nov. 11, 2006, in John L. Smith’s final home game.

… Freshman running back Elijah Collins got his first two career carries, gaining 4 yards on each.


Twitter @mattcharboneau