New York — For one afternoon, the frustration of a long season disappeared.
Most of the things that had gone wrong throughout the season were suddenly clicking for Michigan State as it faced Wake Forest in the Pinstripe Bowl. Quarterback Brian Lewerke was making big plays with his arm and his feet, the running game was finding some room, big catches were being made and the defense was getting off the field.
Perfect it was not — there were two red-zone turnovers in the second half and a missed field goal in the final minutes to overcome — but that mattered little moments after Michigan State earned a 27-21 victory Friday at Yankee Stadium.
“I thought our guys were relentless,” Michigan State coach Mark Dantonio said. “I was asked to describe how we played and I thought relentless, really on both sides of the ball.
“I just can't say enough about our football team and our seniors, that they stayed together. When you win a football game at the end of the year, when you win a bowl game which so much goes into it from a preparation standpoint, it's a good feeling, a very positive feeling.”
Those feelings have been hard to come by this season. Actually, they’ve been hard to come by for the past two seasons. But the victory in the 10th playing of the Pinstripe Bowl not only provided the Spartans' sixth bowl victory under Dantonio, it at least allowed for some fun in the locker room and a positive feeling heading into the off-season.
“It feels great sending the seniors out with the dub,” junior linebacker Antjuan Simmons said. “All those guys, they've been here for four, five years working and putting in a lot of work and feels good to send them out with a win and end on a good note. Going into the offseason there is a lot of momentum — well, not a lot — but some momentum and we know we have to keep our mindset positive.”
The Spartans will be able to keep that mindset thanks to a complete effort on both sides of the ball.
Lewerke, in his 38th and final start, was 26-for-37 for 320 yards with one touchdown pass and a touchdown run. He was named the game’s MVP and with 366 total yards, Lewerke surpassed Connor Cook for the most total yards (9,548) in program history.
Redshirt freshman Elijah Collins ran 21 times for 96 yards to lead the Spartans while junior Cody White had eight receptions for 97 yards, including a 10-yard touchdown.
The defense was big, too. After allowing 21 first-half points, the Spartans pitched a second-half shutout and made a string of stops in the fourth quarter, including the final stop after a missed field goal would have clinched the game.
“I thought we played with a lot more swagger in the second half,” defensive end Kenny Willekes said. “We came out firing in the second half and that’s what our goal was. We felt like we gave them a couple touchdowns in the first half and we said we're going to make it our goal to get a shutout this half. We're gonna play with some swagger, play with some confidence. We got their tempo under control, we got it figured out and we came out firing all cylinders.”
Wake Forest (8-5) did its best to put pressure on the Spartans. The offense was clicking early as quarterback Jamie Newman threw for three touchdowns in the first half and finished the game with 87 yards rushing.
The offense fizzled in the second half for the Demon Deacons, but an interception and fumble recovery in the second half kept them in the game until Michigan State got key stops on defense and was able to bleed the clock in the final minutes.
“We came out in the first half and played really well on offense,” Wake Forest coach Dave Clawson said. “Bottom line in the second half is we didn't make plays on offense, and they made the plays on defense. They did a good job of pressuring us. I thought their defensive line did a good job of rushing the passer. We just didn't get open on the perimeter.”
Things got rolling early as Wake Forest was on the board seven plays into the game when fifth-year senior Kendall Hilton hauled in a 29-yard touchdown pass from Newman to give the Deacons a 7-0 lead less than three minutes into the game.
After a three-and-out on its first drive, Michigan State responded with a 16-play drive that ended with a 23-yard field goal from junior Matt Coghlin to cut the deficit to 7-3 late in the first quarter. The Spartans took the lead three plays later when senior defensive end Mike Panasiuk grabbed a deflected pass and returned it 14 yards for the touchdown. The pass was batted down by his brother, junior Jacub Panasiuk, and bounced off a Wake Forest player before landing in Mike Panasiuk’s hands, giving Michigan State a 10-7 lead with two minutes left in the first quarter.
“A great play by him, a very alert play by him,” Dantonio said. “I thought he played very well throughout the game.”
Wake Forest took the lead back in the second quarter when freshman Donavon Greene grabbed a 16-yard touchdown pass from Newman to give the Deacons a 14-10 lead, but the Spartans answered with an 8-yard touchdown run for Lewerke, a play that was set up by Lewerke’s 64-yard strike to redshirt freshman tight end Trenton Gillison.
The Demon Deacons were back in front less than two minutes later on a 44-yard scoring strike from Newman to senior tight end Jack Freudenthal and Michigan State capped the first-half scoring with a 44-yard field goal from Coghlin as Wake Forest took a 21-20 lead into halftime.
Michigan State opened the second half with an impressive 10-play drive that ended with the Spartans taking a 27-21 lead on a 10-yard pass from Lewerke to White.
The Spartans looked like they were going to add to the lead when they moved deep into Deacons territory late in the third quarter. But a pass from Lewerke was behind Collins and intercepted by Wake Forest linebacker Ryan Smenda. Michigan State had another chance to extend the lead in the fourth quarter, marching inside the Wake Forest 15 before Gillison fumbled at the 5 and it was recovered by the Deacons’ Ja’Cquez Williams with 11:40 left.
Michigan State had a chance to avoid any late drama, but Coghlin’s 28-yard field goal with just more than three minutes to play was wide left. However, Wake Forest failed to pick up a first down and MSU ran out the clock.
“It felt good,” Lewerke said. “Obviously, we just wanted to come out and get a win to send our seniors out the right way and give a little boost going into next year.”