Lewerke playing all the right cards in MSU's resurgence

Lynn Henning
The Detroit News

East Lansing — One diversion a college football quarterback uses to clear his mind and soul was, of course, anticipated.

Video games, which Brian Lewerke fancies, as do most of his Michigan State teammates who need an occasional break from football and classroom chores.

The other pastime was less obvious, but perfectly understood, given that this indeed is the Midwest and this card game is a Midwest staple.


“Didn’t play till I got here,” Lewerke said Tuesday night, minutes after practice had ceased at the Spartans’ indoor practice haven, where coach Mark Dantonio’s gang was prepping for Saturday’s game at Rutgers.

Ah, that right-bower, left-bower, be-sure-to-lead-trump card contest would have been picked up rapidly by a sophomore quarterback who can sort through defensive schemes, see blitzes boiling, and check-off audibles as niftily as Lewerke.

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He ranks as one reason the Spartans are 8-3 heading to New Jersey for Saturday’s regular-season finale (4 p.m., High Point Solutions Stadium). He ranked as one reason, among many, the Spartans last week survived a Spartan Stadium blizzard to beat Maryland, 17-7, on a day when Lewerke’s passing data looked as if it had been a victim of some bad auto-correct.

He threw 14 passes. He had two passes caught. Lewerke finished with 20 yards, which is what he often gets on a single reception, let alone a single game.

Yardage this feeble from a 21-year-old QB who two and three weeks earlier had thrown for a combined 845 yards against Northwestern and Penn State was the product of various sour realities.

Saturday’s weather was ugly. The ball was soaked. And, while it was no day to judge a quarterback’s dexterity, Lewerke didn’t have a particularly deft afternoon.

“What sucked is whenever I went to the ground my hand would get all wet,” he said, explaining that moisture wasn’t the only debris he was collecting. “I’d just try to wipe it all off with a towel and get ready to go.”


There were no complaints from his coaches following four quarters of football better-suited to a team of huskies.

“He’s a great game manager,” Dantonio said Tuesday, reflecting on Saturday’s skirmish in the slop. “Probably what I should have said last Saturday night was that we got great game management from our quarterback position.

“We only attempted four passes in the second half. That was by design. It was bad out there.”

During a season when MSU’s defense has been regularly winning Saturday first-star status, Lewerke and his allies on offense have been fine.

LJ Scott has been grabbing as much ground (731 yards) as an offensive line and Scott’s legs can reasonably add. Felton Davis III and Darrell Stewart have been snagging big-play passes, as have freshmen Cody White and Hunter Rison.

Lewerke has helped, apart from his arm, with 433 yards and four touchdowns, including a 25-yard TD sprint Saturday.

And yet no one seems terribly sure Lewerke, at least this month, has played his best football. He had a bumpy day in the Spartans’ Nov. 11 debacle of a defeat, 48-3, at Ohio State when he was 18-for-36 with a pair of interceptions, worth 131 yards.

Coaches weren’t overly focusing on Lewerke— not when Nick Bosa was barreling down on him like a Pamplona bull and when Buckeyes defenders had turned Spartans receivers into hostages.

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Nor was Lewerke sticking his arms and head in stocks as public penalty for a team’s overall awful day at Columbus.

But sugar-coating isn’t vogue in East Lansing. Not when a team has learned, through good and bad seasons, that accountability is the best policy.

“He had an off-day,” Spartans quarterbacks coach Brad Salem acknowledged Wednesday, thinking back to the Columbus carnage. “But at the time that defense would make you have an off-day.”

Salem could also say Wednesday, “I think he’s remarkable right now in terms of where he’s going with the football.”

That’s to say the coaching staff, if not happy with all the progression looks Lewerke brings to a pass play, appreciates that he often tends to get yardage, whether it’s a bullet to one of his wideouts, or by way of a fast-step scramble, or QB draw, or read-option, or whatever a man who can zip 40 yards in 4.65 seconds, unveils on a possession.

Lewerke smiled and shrugged Tuesday night as he stood in MSU’s chilly indoor fieldhouse, wearing a red jersey stamped with the number 14, his hands in a black shirt-pouch.

“I’m hoping to get back to the 300, 400-yard mark,” he said, thinking immediately about Saturday’s duel at Rutgers, which has had its issues with opponents and balanced offenses in 2017. “Want to get those receivers involved.”

Lewerke understands his status compared with 12 months ago is as upbeat as his team’s. Thanksgiving week, 2016, featured the Spartans finishing out a 3-9 calamity while Lewerke was healing from a broken left leg he had wrecked in MSU’s loss against Michigan at East Lansing.

So, they sat home, all of them: the Spartans missing bowl season, Lewerke missing the use of two legs. He still wears a brace on the healed leg but, as those dashes downfield confirm, he’s back intact, four years after he first was drawn to Dantonio’s team as it beat Stanford in the Rose Bowl, during his junior year at Pinnacle High in Phoenix, Ariz.

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He liked the way in which Connor Cook played Top Gun on Dantonio’s pro-grade offense. He soon got to know Salem, who had been handed Arizona as part of Salem’s recruiting turf. By the time Lewerke had absorbed East Lansing’s charms, he no longer was deciding between Arizona State and Michigan State. He was headed to East Lansing

When not digesting the day’s football rigors, and ahead of those occasional hours when video duels and euchre games beckon, he is heavy at classes. Lewerke is an economics major.

Years ago, he realized he had a thing for the stock market. He’s since had a tax class he found intriguing even if, following practice Tuesday, his night’s to-do list consisted of writing two papers: one for a College Sports History class, another for a semester seminar on the Social Science of Sports.

Final exams will be here in a couple of weeks. His final football exam for 2017 will come a couple of weeks later, at a bowl game yet to be determined, with the cushier option likely depending on a clean-up victory Saturday.

Lewerke will try and make this regular-season closing act special. He remembers a year ago -- where he was, where his team was. The incentive should be easily tapped.

Michigan State at Rutgers

Kickoff: 4 Saturday, High Points Solutions Stadium, Piscataway, N.J.

TV/radio: Fox/760

Records: Michigan State 8-3, 6-2 Big Ten; Rutgers 4-7, 3-5

Line: Michigan State by 16