Spartans get running game revved up in win over Northwestern

Matt Charboneau
The Detroit News

East Lansing — As Michigan State prepared to face No. 8 Northwestern on Saturday, the Spartans desperately wanted to be able to run the ball.

It seemed like wishful thinking considering the Wildcats entered the game third in the Big Ten and 13th in the nation in rushing defense as well as fourth in the country in scoring defense, giving up just 12.6 points a game.

But the Spartans believed the plays were there. After the loss to Indiana two weeks ago, they watched the film and found themselves frustrated over how close they actually were to finally finding some traction on the ground.

Michigan State's Connor Heyward rushes against Northwestern during the second quarter.

“We have been so close in some of these other games,” Michigan State coach Mel Tucker said. “I mean, it just makes you sick when you look at the Indiana game and look at some of the things that were there and that we didn't take advantage of.”

Instead of abandoning things, however, the Spartans kept plugging away. And while many didn’t expect it, things finally came together against the Wildcats as Michigan State ran for 195 yards to help control the time of possession and lead to a 29-20 victory at Spartan Stadium.

Connor Heyward led the way, gaining 96 yards on 24 carries, his best outing since he gained 157 two years ago against Maryland.

“Going into this game we knew not a lot of teams were able to run the ball on them,” Heyward said, “and I don't think a lot of people were expecting us to run the ball on them like we did. I felt like we were very productive, and for me, (running backs) coach (William) Peagler talked to me and all the running backs and really emphasized on us getting our pad level down and being able to run through the traffic because there's gonna be dirty holes and we're gonna have to make holes by ourselves.”

The Spartans did plenty of that, even though they were short-handed as freshman Jordon Simmons did not play. Heyward was spelled by Elijah Collins, who gained 34 yards on 13 carries, while quarterback Rocky Lombardi gained 65 yards on 10 attempts.

It was Michigan State’s best running production since it gained 275 yards in a loss last season to Illinois.

Tucker gave credit to the entire offense, as well as offensive line coach and running game coordinator Chris Kapilovic.

“I’m just telling you, he's one of the best in the business,” Tucker said of Kapilovic. “He’s relentless. He believes in his players, and he's going to get out of those guys what they have, and we're going to continue to work to get better.”

Lombardi gets job done

After getting pulled in the second quarter two weeks ago in the loss to Indiana, there was no guarantee that Lombardi would get the starting nod this week as he and redshirt freshman Payton Thorne battled in practice.

But when the game started, there was Lombardi, starting once again. He was far from perfect, but he was able to hit two big touchdown passes and while he did have another interception, he made plays with his feet, as well.

“For me, I go out there and expect to play well every week,” Lombardi said. “Unfortunately, sometimes it doesn't work out like that. But I'm going to continue to improve, and I think there's a lot of things to improve on from this week. That’s all you can do is just look forward to the next one.”

By the time Michigan State took a 17-0 lead, Lombardi’s only two completions went for touchdowns — a 75-yarder to Jalen Nailor and a 15-yarder to Jayden Reed. Lombardi finished 11-for-27 for 167 yards with the one interception. His defense helped him out on the next play by forcing a fumble and then Lombardi helped put the game away with a 12-yard run to pick up a first down and burn some clock after Michigan State took the lead in the fourth quarter.

“This this week, I stepped up and ran the ball a little bit more,” Lombardi said. “It definitely helped out our run game, and our line played fantastic as well.”

As for the quarterback battle, Lombardi is taking nothing for granted.

“ I don't compete against anybody except for myself,” Lombardi said. “Payton's the same way. We try to help each other and make each other better and ultimately, that's what's going to make our football team better.”

Scary moment

Michigan State junior cornerback Shakur Brown had two interceptions, giving him five for the season. His second helped set up the winning field goal, but it also produced a scary moment when he collided with Northwestern wide receiver Berkeley Holman.

Holman lay motionless on the field while the school’s medical staff evaluated him. He was carefully strapped to a backboard and lifted onto a cart. After Holman’s teammates surrounded him to offer support, he lifted his left arm and extended his thumb.

Holman was taken to a hospital as a precaution but was talking, alert and moving. The team expected he’d be able to return to Evanston Saturday night.

“Great news about Berk,” Northwestern coach Pat Fitzgerald said.

Extra points

Michigan State defensive tackle Jalen Hunt, who was hurt two weeks ago, was injured again on Saturday and did not return. Later in the game he was seen on the sidelines with his left foot in a walking boot.

… Michigan State was without freshman RB Jordon Simmons, though no update was given. The Spartans were also missing freshman WR Ricky White.

… Several players returned to the lineup, including sophomore wide receiver Tre Mosley, senior safety Tre Person, sophomore cornerback Kalon Gervin and sophomore cornerback Chris Jackson.

… Freshman wide receiver Montorie Foster earned his first career start.

Twitter: @mattcharboneau