East Lansing — Injuries certainly had something to do with it, but Michigan State provided a glimpse of its future on Saturday afternoon.
While the outcome was a stunning 37-34 loss to Illinois in which the Spartans gave up 27 fourth-quarter points, the offense was rolling early and featured four true freshmen in the starting lineup, each for the first time in his career.
Up front, Nick Samac started at center with junior Matt Allen out with an injury while J.D. Duplain got the call at left guard as junior Luke Campbell had been sick most of the week. Out on the edge, Julian Barnett and Tre Mosley started for the first time at wide receiver with Mosley getting the first touchdown of his career. They were on the field to open the game with Darrell Stewart and C.J. Hayes out with injuries.
“I'm sure you're going to see some things where they did make plays appropriately,” Michigan State coach Mark Dantonio said. “They did make some mistakes but I thought they played pretty well. I don't think Lewerke got sacked and we ran the ball pretty effectively.”
The offensive line had one of its best performances of the season as Samac went the entire game at center and Duplain was spelled only briefly by sophomore Blake Bueter, who also played some at right guard after starter Matt Carrick was hurt in the third quarter.
Michigan State ran for 275 yards with redshirt freshman Elijah Collins gaining 170 yards on 28 carries with a pair of touchdowns. Lewerke, indeed, did not get sacked and ran for 96 yards with a touchdown.
Barnett, who has played in all nine games, started for the first time but had just one catch for 19 yards. Mosley, who’s played in just two games, had four catches for 32 yards with the one touchdown. He had a shot at another but couldn’t hang on in the end zone in the first half after taking a big hit.
“I thought our guys played pretty well, our young players, in a big moment,” Dantonio said.
Included in the mix of young players is Collins. He’s started eight of the nine games and his 28 carries were the most in a single game as he did his best to get the offense rolling in the second half when it managed just six points.
“We weren't making as many plays as we were (in the first half),” Collins said, “but we were still trying to get every inch that we could, and they came out a little bit hotter than us. That's what led to the result.
“We're playing a lot of young players right now. A lot of people are out, a lot of people are hurt, and so people have to step up and make plays. We've got to learn how to finish as a unit.”
Even with the shuffling up front, Michigan State had its best running game of the season.
With 275 yards, the Spartans surpassed the 251 yards they gained in the win over Western Michigan when Collins ran for 192 yards. Collins gained 170 yards on 28 carries, the most in his career, for an average of 6.1 yards a carry.
“It was a good job by the offensive line,” Collins said. “They did a pretty good job, especially my young guys in their first start this year. We had some other guys back from injury so I’m proud of my offensive lineman, my tight ends, my receivers, everybody was blocking. I can’t do it without them.”
Quarterback Brian Lewerke added a career-high 96 yards rushing with his first touchdown of the season.
The injuries continued to pile up for the Spartans, who were thin to begin with.
Tight end Matt Dotson hurt his foot in the first quarter and was carted to the locker room. He did not return. In the third quarter, cornerback Josiah Scott was hurt and came back from the locker room but stayed out while right guard Matt Carrick was also hurt in the third quarter and did not return.
The Spartans were already without center Allen, who was hurt against Penn State, and guard Campbell, who was sick all week. Defensive tackle Mike Panasiuk also battled illness but still played. Receivers Darrell Stewart and C.J. Hayes also did not play while offensive lineman Tyler Higby was out.
Sophomore linebacker Noah Harvey got his first career start, but it wasn’t in the middle for the suspended Joe Bachie. Instead, Antjuan Simmons played in the middle while Harvey rotated on the outside with redshirt freshman Jeslord Boateng.
For Simmons, the move from the outside was one he was willing to make.
“I'm gonna do whatever I need to do for this team,” Simmons said. “If I’ve got to play D-end, nose guard, whatever, I'm gonna do it. I'm gonna give it everything I’ve got.”