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Memorable moments from Michigan State’s season

Matt Charboneau
The Detroit News
Ohio State's Chris Worley (left) and Malik Hooker (right) combine on an interception (credited to Worley) on Michigan State's failed two-point conversion attempt, preserving OSU's 17-16 lead.

East Lansing – When looking back at the 2016 season, there were plenty of memorable moments for Michigan State football.

The only problem is, after a 3-9 season, most of those memories were ugly, and trying to shake most of what happened will be the challenging part for the Spartans. Coming off a College Football Playoff appearance in 2015, hopes were high for the Spartans, but it didn’t take long to realize things were heading in the wrong direction.

The three wins were the fewest for Michigan State since going 3-8 in 1991, and the last time the Spartans had just one Big Ten victory was in 2006.

There were highlights, to be sure, like fifth-year senior tight end Josiah Price, whose 21 touchdown catches are the most by a tight end in program history. Junior linebacker Chris Frey emerged as a defensive leader while junior safety Monte Nicholson had a career-high 86 tackles.

Michigan State also played nine true freshmen while using a different starting lineup in every game. Much of it was out of necessity, but it should bode well for the future as 21 players started for the first time in their careers.

All in all, however, 2016 will be a season the Spartans will try to forget. Here are 10 moments that stood out.

Promising start

After muddling through a season-opening victory over Furman and then getting a bye in the second week, Michigan State headed west to take on Notre Dame, and the Irish’s expectations were just as high as the Spartans’. Michigan State was ranked No. 12 and was looking to snap a three-game skid to No. 18 Notre Dame. The Spartans allowed a first-quarter touchdown to the Irish before scoring the next 36 points as junior Gerald Holmes and sophomore LJ Scott ran over Notre Dame, with Scott scoring once and Holmes twice, including a 73-yard run. Fifth-year senior QB Tyler O’Connor threw a pair of touchdown passes, including one to freshman Donnie Corley.

The game had people believing Michigan State was once again a playoff team, but it had to hold off a late rally to win by eight, 36-28, and the subsequent fall of Notre Dame proved the Week 3 game was between two teams rated much higher than they should have been.

Big turning point

The hype was in full force the next week in East Lansing as Michigan State was opening Big Ten play against No. 11 Wisconsin, which had already beaten LSU. It was supposed to be validation for the Spartans and instead was the first crack in the armor.

The biggest play and one of the key turning points in the season came on the first drive of the second half with Wisconsin leading, 13-6. Michigan State was marching into Badgers territory on the running of LJ Scott and looked to be closing in on the tying touchdown. Instead, Scott got drilled by Wisconsin’s D’Cota Dixon and fumbled at the Badgers’ 34. It was picked up by Wisconsin’s Leo Musso and returned for a touchdown. Michigan State never threatened to score again and lost 30-6.

Ominous sign

The Wisconsin game was bad enough in the sense Michigan State handed the Badgers 21 of their 30 points, with two touchdowns the direct result of turnovers and another because of a botched punt snap. But that game also signified a bigger problem Michigan State would deal with all season – injuries.

Already playing without fifth-year senior linebacker Riley Bullough, who injured his shoulder the week before at Notre Dame, junior linebacker Jon Reschke hurt his ankle against the Badgers and missed the rest of the season. Injuries hampered MSU all year -- along the offensive line, in the secondary and up front on defense. It was a never-ending story and the Wisconsin loss was the first sign of how bad it would get.

Indiana's Griffin Oakes (right) reacts after kicking the winning field goal in overtime against Michigan State.

More pain in overtime

Michigan State looked like it had a shot to turn around its season when it headed to Indiana to face a team it had beaten seven straight times. But the Spartans’ struggles remained as they lost defensive tackle Malik McDowell to a targeting call and needed a 2-yard touchdown pass from Tyler O’Connor to Josiah Price on fourth down with 11 seconds to play just to force overtime.

It didn’t go well in overtime, however, as Michael Geiger missed a 49-yard field goal. The Spartans seemed to catch a break when Indiana kicker Griffin Oakes missed a 33-yard field goal, but Drake Martinez was called for leaping over the line of scrimmage and Oakes got another chance, nailing the game-winner, 24-21.

Low point for offense

Michigan State’s offensive woes reached its low point in the final non-conference game against BYU. The Spartans managed just 206 total yards as Tyler O’Connor threw for 58 yards before getting replaced by junior Damion Terry. He didn’t fare much better but did score on a 1-yard run in the fourth quarter. However, Michigan State allowed 24 consecutive points after taking a 7-0 lead and then gave up 21 fourth-quarter points, and BYU blew open a close game, 31-14.

Price went over the 1,000-yard mark for his career in the game while junior safety Montae Nicholson had 17 tackles, the lone bright spots for the Spartans.

Return kills the comeback

When Michigan State next took the field against Northwestern, it was the first start for redshirt freshman quarterback Brian Lewerke. He got things rolling early – a common theme for Michigan State – connecting with Josiah Price on a 15-yard touchdown pass that was followed by an interception returned for a touchdown by freshman Justin Layne. However, the 14-point lead evaporated quickly and by the second half, Tyler O’Connor was back in at quarterback.

He did his best to author a comeback, but after his 86-yard touchdown pass to R.J. Shelton in the third quarter cut the Northwestern lead to 33-31, the Spartans allowed Solomon Vault to return the ensuing kickoff 95 yards for the touchdown and effectively put the game away. The final was 54-40.

Michigan safety Jabrill Peppers celebrates after sacking Michigan State quarterback Brian Lewerke late in the fourth quarter.

Bad break

Brian Lewerke didn’t start the game against Michigan, and unfortunately for the Spartans, he didn’t finish it, either. However, after Tyler O’Connor and Damion Terry both failed to get the offensive moving, it was Lewerke that nearly rallied the Spartans. He hit Monty Madaris with a 15-yard touchdown pass in the fourth quarter to cut the deficit to 30-17 and had MSU marching on its next drive. However, on fourth down from the Michigan 15, Lewerke was sacked by Jabrill Peppers. Worse than the drive ending was the fact Lewerke broke his leg, ending the season for the player that would have started at quarterback the rest of the season.

Instead of getting valuable experience over the final four games, Lewerke was forced to watch. However, coach Mark Dantonio has indicated Lewerke is the man to beat for the starting job heading into next season.

Same old story

By the time Michigan State headed to Illinois it needed to win out to reach a bowl game, and taking on a Fighting Illini team with one conference win seemed like the right formula. However, many of the same issues plagued the Spartans. Tyler O’Connor got knocked out of the game, as did Malik McDowell. But Damion Terry came in to rally Michigan State, which led 27-24 with less than three minutes to play. However, the defense couldn’t hold and former third-string quarterback Jeff George Jr. marched the Illini down the field for the winning touchdown, 31-27.

Terry nearly brought the Spartans back, but he was sacked on fourth down from the Illinois 15 with just 19 seconds left in the game.

Failed two-point try

Michigan State hosted Ohio State in mid-November in a game that in the preseason appeared as though it could be for championship stakes. But it became one where the Spartans had only one role – spoiler. They nearly pulled it off, too, as they continued to be a headache for Urban Meyer and the Buckeyes. Michigan State was stingy defensively and ran the ball well, for a brief afternoon looking like the team many expected it to be.

The storybook ending didn’t come true, however, as Michigan State went for the win by attempting a two-point conversion after LJ Scott’s 1-yard touchdown run with 4:41 left in the game that made the score 17-16 in favor of Ohio State. Josiah Price was the primary target on the two-point play but wasn’t open, and when Tyler O’Connor tried to come back to the middle and hit tight end Jamal Lyles, the pass was intercepted and the upset bid did, as well.

Sad season-ender

The final Saturday in State College summed up the frustration of Michigan State’s season. It had four first-half possessions and scored on all four as Damion Terry got his first career start. However, the Spartans only managed to kick field goals on those possessions and led 12-10 at halftime. On top of that, Terry took a shot to the helmet late in the half and was lost for the game.

It was all the life the Nittany Lions needed as they scored 35 second-half points to blow out the Spartans, exacting a bit of revenge from the pummeling they received the season before in East Lansing and punching their ticket to the Big Ten championship game, 45-12.