Wojo: Lewerke leads Spartans' escape, but now comes the hard part

Bob Wojnowski
The Detroit News

East Lansing — There was going to be a day like this, eventually. Michigan State’s unyielding defense couldn’t hold off everybody, every week. And when the day arrived, and an opponent popped the perfect game plan on the Spartans, there had to be a response like this.

For the first time in a while, it was all back on Brian Lewerke, and the senior quarterback gave a clutch reminder of what he can do. Indiana redshirt freshman Michael Penix Jr. was picking apart Michigan State to the point where an uncomfortable reality dawned — the defense was not going to win this game.

If Brian Lewerke plays like he did on Saturday, the Spartans have a chance against any team they play.

Usually, that’s a major problem. And it could be a major problem when the Spartans visit Ohio State next Saturday. But in this one, Lewerke provided a major answer, one the Spartans had to have. They hung on to beat Indiana 40-31, winning on Matt Coghlin’s 21-yard field goal with 5 seconds left (followed by a fumble-return touchdown on the Hoosiers’ final desperate play).

Listen, if the defense plays like this again — allowing 20 consecutive completions at one point — the Spartans (4-1) aren’t going anywhere. If they don’t regain their aggressive zeal and pressure the quarterback, they have little shot in Columbus against the Buckeyes (5-0), who might be the best team in the country.

But if Lewerke plays like this again — big arm, big legs in the biggest moments — they have a chance against almost anybody they play.

“It feels good to be able to score when we needed to, when the defense wasn’t having their best day, which doesn’t happen a lot,” Lewerke said. “There were still a lot of throws I missed that could’ve made a difference, but I made the one that mattered.”

Two-minute lightning

Every throw mattered as Indiana delivered another feisty effort in a losing cause. Using an array of bubble screens and dump-off passes, mixed with the occasional deep shot, the Hoosiers out-schemed the Spartans and defused their blitzes. But they couldn’t put them away. Penix was 33-for-42 for 286 yards, and after he hit Whop Philyor on an 11-yard strike with 2 minutes left, it was 31-31.

Lewerke has been brilliant before in those situations, but that was mostly two years ago. He was injured and shaken last season, and the Spartans offense had moved in fits and spurts so far this season. Then with two big plays on the final drive, Michigan State escaped the upset bid and relief was etched everywhere, especially on the face of the head coach.

“So excited for our football team, to handle adversity, to come back in the fourth quarter and we didn’t bat an eyelash,” Mark Dantonio said. “The offense really bailed out the defense, and I don’t think we’ve had a game like that defensively for a while now.”

Starting at Michigan State’s 25 with 2 minutes left, Lewerke rolled to his left, twisted his body and heaved the ball downfield, where Darrell Stewart leapt and snared it for a 44-yard gain. On the very next play, Lewerke dashed up the middle and cut to the right for 30 yards to the 1, and all that was left was to maneuver the ball and massage the clock for Coghlin’s kick.

On the 30-yard run, Lewerke appeared to slow slightly as he neared the goal line, and admitted afterward he was unsure if he was supposed to score. If he had, the Hoosiers would’ve had time for a potential tying drive.

Dantonio wasn’t sure either whether Lewerke could’ve scored, but it all worked out. Most important, the Spartans saw the ol’ swagger in their quarterback. Trailing 24-21 early in the fourth quarter, Michigan State took over on the Indiana 26 after a 22-yard punt return by Brandon Sowards. Two plays later — a 16-yard pass to Elijah Collins and a 10-yard TD strike to Matt Seybert — and Michigan State led again.

“I knew we had a chance when we were down and Brian Lewerke comes into the huddle, it’s crunch time, and he said ‘this is fun,’ ” Dantonio said. “I sort of looked at him, but he played outstanding, made all the plays you need to make.

Did the coach find it fun?

“Oh no,” Dantonio said. “I didn’t say a word though. If he was feeling it, it was good. He had a hot hand, no question. The ball was coming out on target, a couple drops, but on target about 95 percent of the time.”

Confidence grows

He wasn’t that efficient until he absolutely had to be. Lewerke missed some throws and his receivers indeed dropped a few, and he finished 18-for-36 for 300 yards. He didn’t throw an interception and ran for 78 yards. The trust between Lewerke and fellow senior Stewart (five catches, 117 yards) is growing, and so is Lewerke’s confidence, as he audibled to runs several times.

The Spartans did benefit from some good fortune that left Indiana coach Tom Allen frustrated. An illegal block penalty wiped out a long punt return that would’ve put the Hoosiers deep in Michigan State territory, leading 24-21. Another penalty, for defensive holding, wiped out a Lewerke fumble. Michigan State also was flagged for at least one questionable pass interference, so this wasn’t about the officiating, despite the game-changers.

This was about Lewerke’s impressive rebound, and the defense’s unusual retreat. The Spartans seldom got close to the quick-throwing Penix, who was sacked once in 42 attempts. The speedy Philyor had 14 catches for 142 yards, and if he was popping open in the seams, what is the Buckeyes’ loaded offense capable of doing?

It’s a question Michigan State’s defenders already were contemplating, even as they appreciated the sweaty victory.

 “We’re gonna go down there and try to control the clock a little bit, control the game, play great defense, that’s our goal,” linebacker Joe Bachie said. “Hopefully we just improve. They have a great program (at Ohio State), and if you want to be the best and be a champion, you gotta beat those guys.”

The task looks even more daunting after Michigan State’s close call, while Ohio State dragged Nebraska all over the field, 48-7, Saturday night. Obviously, the Spartans’ real defense must show up in Columbus, and in Wisconsin the following week, and against Penn State two weeks after that. So must their big-play quarterback, as the biggest tests beckon.

Twitter: @bobwojnowski