The Detroit News' Matt Charboneau breaks down Michigan State's season-opening victory over Utah State The Detroit News
East Lansing — Khari Willis doesn’t believe in luck.
Neither does Mark Dantonio.
So, maybe it wasn’t luck that helped No. 11 Michigan State come out of its season-opener against Utah State with a 38-31 victory, but there’s no doubt the Spartans are feeling fortunate they didn’t suffer loss No. 1 in the first week of the season.
“Somehow, someway, we’re 1-0,” Dantonio said. “So things could be a lot worse. I’ll take it and our players will take it and we’ll never apologize for winning a football game. But with that being said, we need to do some things better. But that’s always been the nature of every game we play. You look at it and sometimes you play up and sometimes you don’t. So, we’ll keep pushing and take the next step.”
For a moment on Friday, it looked like the next step would be finding a way to rebound from a loss to a team from outside the Power Five.
With just 5:05 left in the game, the Spartans found themselves trailing Utah State, 31-30, after allowing the Aggies to march 75 yards on 15 plays to take the lead.
MSU's Brian Lewerke, Connor Heyward, Joe Bachie and Kenny Willekes talk about the win over Utah State The Detroit News
Instead of crumble, however, the Michigan State offense got rolling, getting a huge 31-yard grab from senior receiver Felton Davis to help set up Connor Heyward’s 13-yard touchdown run with two minutes to play. A two-point conversion pass from Brian Lewerke to Davis accounted for the final points.
And when Joe Bachie tipped a Jordan Love pass and then grabbed it out of the air, the Spartans had secured a victory that came tougher than expected.
“I don’t really believe in luck, and our head coach doesn’t, either,” Willis said. “We’ve been in tight ball games. They’re a good team and have a lot of returning starters on both sides of the ball. They came to play. Sometimes they’re close but they all count one. There’s a lot of things we have to get better and we look forward to week two and heading out west.”
That matchup next week with Arizona State will be much more anticipated now that the Spartans avoided what would have been a crushing loss.
Lewerke threw for 287 yards and two scores but also lost a fumble and had an interception returned 40 yards for a touchdown. A “dumb play” is how he described the fumble, though he did connect with Davis and Cody White for touchdowns while completing 23 of 33 passes. LJ Scott ran for 84 yards and Heyward had two touchdowns, but overall the run game wasn’t solid.
Add in two penalties with the ball at the Utah State 1 that resulted in field goals and it was an offense that had trouble finding a rhythm.
“We didn’t have any consistency (running the ball),” co-offensive coordinator Dave Warner said, “so I’m disappointed in that, absolutely.”
The defense had its problems, too, mostly dealing with the fast tempo of the Aggies, which took the opening kick and scored in 2:02 to take an early 7-0 lead.
Michigan State coach Mark Dantonio talks about MSU's victory over Utah State Matt Charboneau, The Detroit News
“I think the offense played really good,” Utah State quarterback Jordan Love said. “We prepared all week for this, for their defense. We knew what they were going to do. We were able to attack them in the passing game and still did a pretty good job running the ball. They're a great defense but we prepared for them and we knew what they were going to do, and we did a good job tonight.”
Love was outstanding, throwing for 319 yards while adding a rushing touchdown. Running back Darwin Thompson added two touchdown runs for Utah State, his 1-yarder with 5:05 to play putting the Aggies in position to pull off the upset.
Michigan State took over from its 25 but quickly reached Utah State territory thanks to Davis’ grab that moved MSU to the Aggies’ 21. Two plays later, Scott appeared to score the go-ahead touchdown, but his 14-yard run was called back on a hold receiver Laress Nelson.
After Lewerke gained 3 yards on the next play, he pitched to Heyward for the winner.
“Brian made a good read on the option,” Heyward said. “Usually he keeps those but the way it set up he pitched it and the receivers made some good blocks.”
That left the defense to seal the victory, hardly a sure thing considering they had just allowed a 15-play drive and watched Utah State convert seven of 13 third downs.
But after the Aggies got just past midfield, Bachie made the big play to end Utah State’s hopes.
“That's big-time. That's big-time,” defensive coordinator Mike Tressel said. “Those are the type of plays Joe can make. We talked before the game about not pressing. You know, people are talking about him a little bit. He doesn't need to press to make plays. If he just has the same expectations he had of himself last year and plays within the system, his experience, work ethic, and what he's done since last year will bring more of them plays.”
His first big one of 2018 helped keep things headed in the right direction for the Spartans, and while Dantonio wouldn’t mind a blowout, he understands the win is what matters.
“We're able to play down the stretch, we've got experience to be able to do that, there was no panic in our offense,” Dantonio said. “It was a three-minute drive … We had to come back out there on defense and get the stop but we certainly make it interesting. I wish we wouldn't but that seems to be the trend sometimes. It is tough to win. I'll say it again, it is tough to win, every single football game.
“Coach (George) Perles used to always say ‘They all count one’ and that's what I'm basically building on this one. We'll take steps to try to correct some of the problems but hey, 1-0 right now and again, I thought Utah State played very well.”