Michigan State quarterback Brian Lewerke has last chance to shine against Michigan
East Lansing — Things never have seemed to line up for Brian Lewerke when Michigan State has taken the field against Michigan.
Regardless of the trajectory of a season, the Spartans quarterback hasn’t been able to make an impact against the team’s biggest rival.
It began with promise in 2016 when, as a redshirt freshman, Lewerke came off the bench to lead a scoring drive and was potentially putting together another when he broke his leg while getting tackled by Jabrill Peppers.
The way Lewerke played in four games that season was one of the bright spots heading into 2017, and Lewerke was a big part of Michigan State’s bounce back to 10 victories, a win in Ann Arbor one of the highlights. Lewerke accounted for both of Michigan State’s first-half touchdowns, but once the torrential rains hit, the defense took over as the offenses were limited to simply trying to protect the ball.
And last season, a shoulder injury left Lewerke barely able to lift his arm, let alone throw a decent pass when Michigan came to town and stifled Michigan State’s offense.
The numbers help tell the story of why the Spartans have won only one of the last three: 22-for-57 passing for 260 yards with two passing touchdowns, one rushing, and one receiving. And now, as Michigan State (4-5, 2-4 Big Ten) desperately looks for a win to try and salvage its season, it looks to its fifth-year senior quarterback to perhaps have his signature moment in the rivalry, one that has eluded him for the most part throughout his Spartans career.
“Every game has had its ups and downs,” Lewerke said of his history facing the Wolverines. “We’ve had games where we played well and games where we played bad and you kind of take what each gives you, I guess, and try and play well every time you go into the game.”
It’s a reasonable, measured approach that is understandable. Lewerke acknowledges he hasn’t played his best against Michigan while at the same time continuing to push for that big game, one he and the offense can point to as evidence that things actually are improving on that side of the ball.
The cynic will be quick to point out that Michigan State is, once again, near the bottom of the national rankings in things like scoring (23.1 points a game) and total offense (365.9 yards a game). However, the optimist would look to last week and see there are signs of life.
Against Illinois, Michigan State scored 34 points, piled up 526 total yards and ran for a season-best 275 yards. The Spartans had 28 points by midway through the second quarter while Lewerke threw for 251 yards and ran for a career-high 96, with running back Elijah Collins gaining 170 yards on 28 carries for an average of 6.1 per attempt.
The offense, for the first time since Week 2 against Western Michigan, was rolling.
“We ran the ball effectively,” Michigan State coach Mark Dantonio said. “Elijah gets 170 yards net, that's a big positive. There’s some explosive plays. Lewerke had almost (100) yards rushing, 250 passing. Had some tipped balls that went the other direction, but a couple maybe dropped and then we had the one with the (pass interference) that was a little bit concerning that it was called. But there's another 50-yard gain taken away.
“I think the thing you have to take from a positive perspective in the Illinois game is, ‘Hey, we were productive and we had opportunities and we moved the football.’”
Of course, as has been the case often this season, the offense wasn’t able to sustain throughout the game, as Lewerke finished with three interceptions and a lost fumble, and Michigan State managed to score just six points in the second half as Illinois stormed back to win.
Two interceptions on deflected passes killed two drives in the last half of the second quarter, with the first one getting picked off in the end zone and the second leading to a late Illinois score that helped spark the Illini rally. The late fumble didn’t hurt after an interception by Shakur Brown, but the final interception thrown by Lewerke was returned 76 yards for a touchdown.
“The things that happened from a negative perspective, were either they were making a good play,” Dantonio said, “or us hitting ourselves in the foot.”
The key for Lewerke and the offense against No. 14 Michigan (7-2, 4-2) will be to avoid the mistakes, especially against a Wolverines defense that is ranked seventh in the country in total defense and 11th in scoring, allowing just 17.1 points a game.
Lewerke understands the challenge after facing the likes of Ohio State, Wisconsin and Penn State in three straight weeks, but he also understands the importance of leaving his mark in a rivalry that didn’t take long for the Phoenix native to appreciate.
“It probably wasn’t until the first time I played back in ’16,” Lewerke said. “In ’15 I wasn’t part of that crazy game. I didn't travel and didn’t really play in it, so I wasn't really quite sure yet. But the first time you get game experience, that's when it really hits you.”
Clearly, it’s hit him as Lewerke prepares to face Michigan for the fourth and final time. He wants it to be a good one. A win would help lessen the disappointment of a difficult season, get Michigan State one win closer to a bowl game and leave Lewerke .500 in games played against Michigan and with a winning record in his five years.
“Obviously, a win would be incredible,” Lewerke said. “I'm sure that's what everyone in our senior class would say coming into the last one. So that's what we want to be able to do is get a win.”