The Detroit News' Matt Charboneau breaks down Spartans' first Big Ten loss of the season. Matt Charboneau
Here are five takeaways provided by Matt Charboneau following Michigan State's 39-31 triple-overtime loss at Northwestern Saturday.
Sophomore QB Brian Lewerke had a record-setting game at Northwestern, completing 39 passes and throwing for 445 yards, both more than any player in program history. He also threw for a career-high four touchdowns as the Spartans nearly rallied to pull out the triple-overtime victory. What might be the most encouraging sign, however, is that Lewerke was far from perfect. Not that perfection is realistic, but Lewerke missed on his share of throws, several of which could have been plays that broke the game open and would have avoided overtime all together. However, Lewerke was just off on deep balls to Darrell Stewart, Felton Davis and Cam Chambers and he was kicking himself afterward for those throws. The late interception was a poor choice, and he knows it, but the fact Lewerke is showing he has the tools to make every throw while creating with his feet is a sign the young quarterback has a high ceiling.
PLAYMAKERS ON THE EDGE
After a three-week hiatus, the passing game came to life again in the loss at Northwestern and it once again showed the number of difference-makers the Spartans have in the receiving corps, with most of those players being young. Junior Felton Davis is the elder statesman and had the biggest catch of the game, a 13-yard TD in the corner of the end zone to force overtime. He had eight catches for 95 yards and two scores, proving to be the Spartans’ best red-zone threat. But Davis wasn’t alone. Sophomore Darrell Stewart had career-highs in catches (11) and yards (98) and ran the ball twice for 27 yards while freshman Cody White continued his quick emergence as a potential star. He had career-highs in catches (9), yards (165) and TDs (two) while hauling in a 60-yard pass and a 45-yarder. There are others in the club, too, as freshman Hunter Rison had two catches in crunch time while redshirt freshman Cam Chambers had a few targets. Bottom line, Brian Lewerke has lots to work with.
As well as the passing game was working against Northwestern, the troubles with the run game persisted as the Spartans ran the ball 30 times for 95 yards, an average of 3.2 yards a carry. Brian Lewerke was, once again, the leading rusher with 30 yards as RBs LJ Scott, Gerald Holmes and Madre London gained just 31 yards total. It’s been a problem for most of the season and there is not much sign it’s changing. There were some changes up front as David Beedle started at left guard ahead of Tyler Higby, but in the second half when the Spartans were trying to stay balance, they had trouble finding any room up front. It’s true Northwestern has been good against the run all season, slowing the likes of Penn State and Wisconsin, but the fact remains Michigan State should start thinking about throwing the ball early to open up the run, the opposite of its approach in most games.
DEFENSE IS HUMAN
The Spartans have been riding their defense, and for much of regulation, that side of the ball was keeping them in the game once again. Northwestern was getting its share of first downs and moving the chains with short passes, but until the fourth quarter, the Wildcats were having trouble finding the end zone. They managed a fourth-quarter touchdown on a halfback pass but then really got rolling in overtime. Northwestern scored on its second play in the first overtime, the fourth play in the second and converted a third-and-7 from the 22 in the final overtime into a touchdown. It was the first time in conference play the defense didn’t make the plays it needed late in the game. That’s not a great sign, but hardly a troubling one considering how consistent the defense has been for most of the season.
BACK TO REALITY
It’s easy to get caught up in the moment, and when MSU entered the game unbeaten in the Big Ten and tied atop the East, the goals were quickly changing for a team that before the season was looking for any positive steps after last season. A bowl game was the goal, but with a championship starting to come into sight, it’s easy to look at the loss to Northwestern as a disappointment. That’s fine, but the young Spartans are still ahead of schedule and are looking like a team that will be one of the favorites next season. That’s not to say big things can’t still happen this season. While the next two games against Penn State and Ohio State are huge challenges, they also represent big opportunities. The Spartans might not win either game, but the fact they’re pushing the leaders so quickly after last season’s woes is a sign Mark Dantonio has this program turned around and back in the direction it was coming off the playoff season of 2015.