Wojo: Lewerke throws Spartans back into title contention

Bob Wojnowski
The Detroit News
Michigan State quarterback Brian Lewerke makes a pass in the first quarter against Penn State.

East Lansing — With every perfect pass and every acrobatic catch, with every clutch play in adverse conditions, their confidence grew, and their identity continued to reshape. The Spartans are becoming something different and unexpected and fairly remarkable, and they’re doing it with a passing game that at times looks unstoppable.

Not much is slowing Michigan State’s offense these days, certainly not something as inconsequential as a torrential storm and a 3 1/2-hour delay. The rise is real, vividly confirmed in a soaking, stirring 27-24 victory over Penn State Saturday. The simplest play was the final one — a 34-yard-field goal by Matt Coghlin — but it was preceded by a staggering volume of pressure-packed plays.

Perhaps we shouldn’t be surprised because this is what Mark Dantonio does so well — assess a difficult task, shrug, devise a plan and create something memorable out of it. What began at noon in relative calm ended seven hours later in delirium, and now you have to assess how much this team is capable of achieving behind scorching sophomore quarterback Brian Lewerke.

The Spartans (7-2) will head to Columbus next weekend to battle Ohio State for first place in the Big Ten East, after a day in which the conference’s purported elite were humbled. The Buckeyes were bludgeoned by Iowa 55-24, while the Nittany Lions lost another heart-breaker. Combine those outcomes and you must acknowledge something that seemed unfathomable before the season — the Spartans can win the division.

And don’t mistake the identity that’s forming here. Although the rain created a mess — and the Spartans beat Michigan in similar soggy conditions — these guys aren’t mudders. In fact, unable to run against the Nittany Lions, they won with precision passing, utterly defying the weather.

“We love the rain,” receiver Felton Davis said. “We just try to bring the storm with us wherever we go.”

Diverse targets

With a quarterback this hot, this mobile and this dynamic, anything is possible. For the second straight game, Lewerke threw for 400 yards — 33-for-56 for precisely 400 — and it almost didn’t matter where he put the ball. Michigan State’s batch of skilled receivers is so deep, Lewerke can choose a different favorite target practically every week.

This time it was Davis, who caught 12 passes for 181 yards, including a diving 33-yard touchdown shortly after the game resumed, tying it 14-14 in the second quarter. When a big play was needed, Lewerke threw and Davis caught. On third-and-18 in the third quarter, Davis grabbed a 36-yarder, and the Spartans were 10-for-18 on third-down conversions.

“He’s just putting the ball where we can get it,” Davis said. “We tell him we’re gonna make plays for him, so Brian has the confidence to give us a chance to go get the ball. With a quarterback, it keeps his confidence high knowing it doesn’t have to be a perfect pass, he doesn’t have to hit you in the chest. That’s what we pride ourselves on — wherever it is, we’re gonna go get it.”

Whether rain or shine or darkness of night, the Spartans have developed a knack for delivering. Even in a triple-overtime defeat last week at Northwestern, Lewerke lit it up for 445 yards. In that game, Darrell Stewart caught 11 passes and freshman Cody White had 165 yards receiving. In this game, freshman Hunter Rison had three key receptions for 52 yards, including his own diving grab.

“In the receiver’s room, we say, see ball, get ball,” Rison said. “Brian, he’s a fearless dude. He’s confident in himself, he’s confident in us. We value that he has his trust in us to go and make a play.”

Confidence can spread quickly on a young team, and it was everywhere Saturday. Michigan State’s defense stuffed Saquon Barkley (63 yards rushing) and intercepted Trace McSorley three times, but it also faced adversity. When it did, it made a play, none bigger than stopping Penn State on fourth-and-3 from the Spartans 31 with 4:05 left in a tie game.

Michigan State took over, drove to the Nittany Lions’ 37 and drew a huge roughing-the-passer penalty on third-and-4. A couple plays later, Coghlin was kicking the winner and the crowd was celebrating. Maybe a few thousand were in the stands when the game resumed at 4:38 p.m., but by the end, it had swelled considerably, and made more noise than you could’ve imagined.

Preparing for adversity

And now, a Michigan State team that was building for the future suddenly sees its future right in front of it.

“We have a young football team, but it’s very energetic, very much team-oriented,” Dantonio said. “And starting to become very sure of ourselves.”

Dantonio wasn’t willing to look ahead yet to the Ohio State game. After the longest day imaginable, the Spartans certainly were allowed to soak it in.

More: 'Matured' receivers give MSU's Lewerke plenty of options

Here’s the trademark of this team, and really of Dantonio’s program: Adjust, adjust adjust. He says it all the time, and they’re doing it rapidly now. They’re more capable of adjusting to anything because they prepare for everything.

Wet weather? Not a problem. To prepare for the possibility, the offense conducted its Thursday drills in the rain.

“Coach D left the offense outside the whole day, soaking wet,” Davis said with a laugh. “I was mad, for sure. I was yelling at Coach D — the defense is dry and we were wet. But it helped us today, you could see it.”

Third-and-18? Not a problem.

“In practice, Coach D puts us in extreme situations as an offense, third-and-22, third-and-30, and we gotta go make that play,” Davis said. “It allows you to have the confidence in a game when it’s third-and-15 and third-and-20 and you know what’s being called.”

This wasn’t necessarily the plan, by the way, to be this free-wheeling offense. Coordinator Dave Warner said the Spartans always want to run the ball, but defenses have kept LJ Scott bottled up. So they let Lewerke heave to all those receivers, burning defenses that try to attack the young quarterback.

“I felt great,” Lewerke said. “Their defense had a good amount of holes in it, a lot of exotic looks, a lot of blitzes. That left a lot of holes downfield, and I was able to take advantage of it.”

How cool and smooth did Michigan State’s offense appear? During the long weather delay, some players said they listened to music, some watched the Iowa-Ohio State game, some ate snacks. And most of the receivers took naps, including a two-hour power snooze, according to Davis.

When it was time to wake up, they awoke, and Dantonio’s program is wide awake again. With a first-place showdown looming, no more sleeping on these Spartans.