Matt Charboneau of The Detroit News talks about Michigan State's victory over Northwestern that made Mark Dantonio the winningest coach in program history. Matt Charboneau, The Detroit News
Evanston, Ill. — Early this week, Mark Dantonio said his team would respond.
In fact, the Michigan State coach promised it.
The Spartans didn’t make their coach look bad as Brian Lewerke threw for three touchdown passes and Michigan State beat Northwestern, 31-10, Saturday in front of 40,114 at Ryan Field. The victory ended a three-game skid to the Wildcats and provides a winning start as Michigan State began a stretch of three road games in four weeks.
“Big, big win,” Dantonio said. “Coming off a tough loss last weekend, had to handle adversity and get through things. So I was very proud of our football team in terms of what they were able to accomplish. … I was very impressed with just our workmanlike attitude today.”
That workmanlike attitude provided a celebration of sorts as Dantonio earned his 110th win at Michigan State, making him the winningest coach in program history. It wasn’t the same as it would have been at home, but last week’s loss to Arizona State dashed that plan.
So Dantonio and the Spartans (3-1, 1-0 Big Ten) had to settle for soundly beating Northwestern on Saturday, and it’s an outcome they were determined to provide.
“Just business as usual,” said linebacker Joe Bachie, describing his career-high 14 tackles and his team’s intent on getting back on a winning track. “We talked about it all last week, refocusing and getting back to business and that's what we did this week. Offensively, defensively, we did a great job, we focused together, we got Coach D his win today.”
As big as that milestone was, the win provided plenty of confidence for the Spartans.
The offense moved the ball, and this time, finished drives. Michigan State was 5-for-5 in the red zone and got a balanced attack. Lewerke threw for 228 yards and three scores while Elijah Collins ran for 76 yards and a touchdown, Darrell Stewart had five catches for 77 yards, tight end Matt Seybert had his first two career touchdown catches, and Cody White added a scoring grab.
“There's still some negative plays and a ton of penalties we had today that could get fixed,” Lewerke said. “And we could have scored more points, but I think we're on the right track. We’ve got to make sure we follow it up with another good performance next week.”
As good as Michigan State was offensively, it was the defense that set the tone.
After Michigan State scored a touchdown to begin the game, Northwestern’s first drive ended with a punt. But White fumbled and the Wildcats took over at the MSU 27. They got to the 1 and on three straight plays, the Spartans stuffed the Wildcats to force a turnover on downs.
“Huge stop,” Dantonio said. “That's really like a turnover to me. … That sort of sets the tone for the entire game.”
Added Bachie: “Sudden-change situations we try and pride ourselves on. If they score a touchdown maybe in that goal line it might be a completely different ballgame. So we did a great job defensively, great calls and got lot penetration. … That wins big games on the road. You need stops like that and we were able to do that, so that was huge.”
Michigan State coach Mark Dantonio became the winningest coach in program history with the 31-10 victory over Northwestern. Matt Charboneau, The Detroit News
While Michigan State was rolling, Northwestern (1-2, 0-1) never found a rhythm as sophomore quarterback Hunter Johnson managed just 88 yards passing while the Wildcats never got going until late in the game when Drake Anderson scored on a 2-yard run with 2:41 to play.
“We thought we had a pretty good plan going in as far as taking what the defense would give us,” Northwestern coach Pat Fitzgerald said. “We moved the ball pretty well at times and then there were opportunities that we missed. First of all Michigan State, they’re obviously very good offensively but we were not able to sustain drives, sustain first downs, and we got the ball down inside the one and would go backwards.”
For the third time in four games, Michigan State got moving quickly. Within three plays the Spartans were deep in Wildcats territory thanks to a 29-yard pass from Lewerke to White. Michigan State capped the nine-play drive with Collins’ 5-yard touchdown run to take a 7-0 lead with 11:42 left in the first quarter.
“The defense was still trying to settle in,” Lewerke said, "and I like getting the ball first. I like being the guy that sets the tempo. So for us scoring on the first drive is huge and we focus on that.”
The White fumble followed, but the defensive stand turned away a score. Northwestern was able to get on the board on its next drive thanks to a 39-yard field goal from Charlie Kuhbander to cut Michigan State’s lead to 7-3 with 14:13 left in the second quarter. A late interception by Michigan State’s Josiah Scott allowed the Spartans to extend their lead in the final minute of the half when Lewerke connected with White on an 11-yard touchdown pass with 24 seconds left in the second quarter, putting Michigan State up, 14-3, headed to the locker room.
“I thought Lewerke played well in the two-minute situation,” Dantonio said. “I thought he played pretty well. He’s probably thrown for 1,000 yards and in four games, so he's pretty productive. And I thought we were running the ball OK. We didn't break the big ones, but we found running room.”
The second half was all Michigan State. After forcing a quick three-and-out, the Spartans marched the ball downfield only for Matt Coghlin to push a 40-yard field goal wide right, his fourth straight miss this season. The Spartans followed by forcing another three-and-out and responded with Lewerke hitting Seybert for an 8-yard touchdown pass to take a 21-3 lead. After another three-and-out, Coghlin kicked a 26-yard field goal to put Michigan State ahead, 24-3, with three seconds left in the third quarter.
Michigan State pushed the lead to 31-3 early in the fourth quarter on Seybert’s second score, a 7-yard catch from Lewerke. It came after defensive end Drew Beesley intercepted a tipped pass to give the Spartans the ball inside the Northwestern 25.
It allowed the Spartans to take it easy over the final few minutes as Dantonio got win No. 110.
“I knew that sooner or later, maybe it would come,” Dantonio said. “But to be honest with you, I'm just trying to focus on winning a football game and those things that come with that 110, I think those are things that you sit back at a later time and say, ‘OK, I did this, I did that.’ But it's not an individual thing. It's just so many people working towards that.”