Spartans have some fun in edging Hoosiers in the closing seconds

Matt Charboneau
The Detroit News

East Lansing — There was a moment in the fourth quarter on Saturday when it seemed Michigan State was on the verge of letting one get away against Indiana.

The Spartans had struggled all day on the defensive side of the ball — that, itself, big news — as Indiana redshirt freshman quarterback Michael Penix was picking apart the MSU secondary, completing 20 straight passes at one point. And by the first play of the fourth quarter, No. 25 Michigan State found itself trailing Indiana by three points.

Michigan State’s Michael Dowell (10) scores a touchdown on a fumble recovery on the final play of the game and celebrates with Kenny Willekes and Raequan Williams.

But it was then, as the Spartans prepared to get the ball back, that Dantonio sensed things would turn out OK.

“I knew we had a chance to win when … we were down,” Dantonio explained, “and Brian Lewerke comes in the huddle and it’s sort of tight and crunch time he says, ‘This is fun.’ So I just sort of looked at him.”

What that look was exactly, will be hard to decipher. Maybe Dantonio was surprised. Maybe that made him feel confident. Whatever it was, the fifth-year senior quarterback clearly made things happen while he was having fun, connecting with tight end Matt Seybert on a 10-yard touchdown pass to put Michigan State up, 28-24, early in the fourth quarter, then executing the two-minute offense to perfection with the score tied, leading to Matt Coghlin’s 21-yard field goal with 5 seconds to play.

The kick gave the Spartans a 34-31 lead, and after adding a defensive touchdown on the game’s final play, Michigan State walked away with a 40-31 victory.

BOX SCORE: Michigan State 40, Indiana 31

“He played outstanding,” Dantonio said of his fifth-year senior quarterback. “Made all the plays that you need to make in a football game. He had the two big drives, the two-minute situations, one at the end of the first half to make it 21-14, and then the one at the end of the game.”

Lewerke missed a few throws, but when it was all said and done, he threw for 300 yards and three touchdowns while running 12 times for 78 yards, his 30-yard scamper on the final drive the play that set up Coghlin’s winning kick. Darrell Stewart had five catches for 117 yards and two touchdowns — the first multi-touchdown game of his career — while Elijah Collins ran for 56 yards and scored a 4-yard touchdown in the first quarter.

“It definitely feels good to be able to score when we need to,” Lewerke said. “To drive down there at the end to get points, you know, when the defense wasn't having the best day. which doesn't happen a lot, I'm glad we played well today.”

Lewerke was right. For once, the defense did not play well.

The Spartans (4-1, 2-0 Big Ten) allowed 356 total yards and 26 first downs as Indiana (3-2, 0-2) was 4-for-4 in the red zone. Penix threw for 286 yards and three touchdowns while his favorite target, junior Whop Philyor, had 14 receptions for 142 yards and two touchdowns.

“It’s hard facing a locker room knowing how hard they played, look them in the eye,” Indiana coach Tom Allen said. “A lot of tears in there, and there should be, because when you invest the way our guys invest, and work the way our guys work, it oughta hurt.”

It wasn’t a typical Michigan State defensive performance as the Hoosiers worked the wide receiver screens to perfection. But two three-and-outs to begin the fourth quarter allowed Michigan State’s offense to regain the lead, then put the game away.

“They were figuring out when we were blitzing, and they were checking to the sideline a bunch,” said linebacker Joe Bachie, who had seven tackles, including one for loss. “And when they saw us in zone pressure then they're throwing the bubbles out there and throwing jailbreaks and some bubble-goes off it. They were making big plays and we couldn't really stop that momentum they had most of the game.

“I would like to say in the fourth quarter we had those two or three-and-outs and that was huge. We needed that for our offense to pick us up.”

The offense was rolling early, marching into Indiana territory on the opening drive before Coghlin sailed a 43-yard field goal wide left. It was his fifth miss in his last six attempts after he began the season with seven straight makes. The Spartans responded after forcing a three-and-out to take a 7-0 lead on Collins’ 4-yard touchdown run to take a 7-0 lead with 8:04 left in the first quarter.

Indiana answered late in the first quarter with a six-play, 68-yard drive that ended with a 28-yard pass from Penix to Philyor to tie the score at 7 with 1:35 left in the first quarter. Michigan State came right back with its own long drive, going 75 yards on 10 plays and taking a 14-7 lead with 12:55 left in the second quarter when Lewerke hit Stewart with a 5-yard touchdown pass.

The Hoosiers evened things at 14 with 4:07 left in the first half when Penix dashed around left end for a 2-yard touchdown run before Michigan State executed an impressive two-minute offense with Lewerke and Stewart connecting again, this time from 26 yards out to give Michigan State a 21-14 lead heading to halftime.

Indiana got a 26-yard field goal from Logan Justus to pull within 21-17 in the third quarter before methodically moving down the field to take a 24-21 lead with 14:52 to play when Penix hit Donavan Hale with a 12-yard scoring pass.

“They did great job scheming us up,” MSU safety David Dowell said. “But we definitely left some plays out there in the defensive backfield.”

Michigan State’s defense responded with a huge three-and-out after a penalty negated a big Indiana punt return. The Spartans got a 22-yard punt return from Brandon Sowards with a 5-yard penalty tacked on to begin the next drive at the Hoosiers’ 26. Lewerke hit Collins for a 16-yard gain on the first play, then connected with Seybert for a 10-yard touchdown pass to put Michigan State up, 28-24, with 12:12 left.

The Spartans added a 44-yard field goal from Coghlin with 3:33 to play to extend the lead to 31-24. But the Hoosiers, with the benefit of three 15-yard penalties called against Michigan State, went 78 yards in six plays to tie the score, 31-31, with 2 minutes to play on an 11-yard pass from Penix to Philyor.

Michigan State got the ball back and got a 44-yard pass from Lewerke to Stewart and the 30-yard run from Lewerke to set up the winning kick.

“Yeah, we were out there smiling, man,” Seybert said. “Brian's going out, throws that one up to D-Stew, that last catch on the last drive. As soon as he caught it I just look at Brian and we start laughing and smiling. It's fun. It's football. It’s like you got to think of it like you’re in the backyard again, man. You’re making big plays like that, you dream of this stuff, and when it’s in front of thousands of people, it’s fun.”

Michigan State heads to Ohio State next week.

There’s plenty to fix, but the Spartans at least enter the meat of the schedule unbeaten in the Big Ten.

“It’s definitely great that we’re putting up points and that’s a good thing heading into the meat of the schedule,” cornerback Josiah Scott said. “We definitely kind of took a step back (on defense), but we’ll get in the film room, practice all week and we’ll be ready.”

Twitter: @mattcharboneau