East Lansing — First they had to clear the air. That’s what the last nine months have been about for Michigan State’s football program, regaining trust and restoring faith.
But this was something different. It was football, finally. And a chance, as coach Mark Dantonio put it, “to get out from under that rock,” the crushing weight they felt after last season’s dismal 3-9 finish and all the ugly off-field news that followed it.
So as they bounced into their locker room at Spartan Stadium, rejuvenated by Saturday’s 35-10 season-opening win over Bowling Green, it was time to clear their voices.
“There’s a sigh of relief, yeah,” said Chris Frey, one of the team’s senior co-captains. “But we’re just excited. You know, it’s been a long time since we sang the fight song. So we just celebrated hard in the locker room. We had a really good time. And that’s what it’s all about. You get a victory, and you celebrate with your brothers.”
It’d been 294 days, in fact, since the last Michigan State victory, a 49-0 rout of Rutgers last November.
And while the opponent was no better Saturday — Bowling Green went 4-8 last season and probably won’t fare much better this year — there was a lot to like about what the Spartans did.
The defense only allowed three points, as the Falcons’ lone touchdown came on a 46-yard fumble return.
The inexperienced receiving corps showed it’s ready to make some noise — most notably sophomore Darrell Stewart Jr. — while a suspect secondary also flashed some playmaking ability.
A fresh look
And perhaps most important, given all the offseason attrition for Michigan State, nine true freshmen saw the field Saturday, matching last year’s total for the entire season. They didn’t look out of place, either.
Neither did Brian Lewerke, though, and if this season is going to be any kind of success, that’s imperative, as a sense of place develops around Michigan State’s offense and the redshirt sophomore quarterback tasked with leading it.
We’d seen a brief glimpse of his abilities last fall, after Tyler O’Connor struggled with injuries and poor play and Dantonio reluctantly gave Lewerke a shot as the starter in mid-October. But two weeks later, his season was over after suffering a broken leg in the loss to Michigan.
And if he showed some jitters early in Saturday’s game, well, that was understandable. It’d been 308 days since Lewerke had taken a snap against anybody other than his teammates.
He missed a wide-open Felton Davis running a post route on the game’s first play from scrimmage. His mechanics looked bad on a few other throws early on.
“Some of 'em were a little low, some a little high,” Dantonio said. “He was probably a little nervous.”
But that didn’t last long, as Lewerke seemed to calm down once things started to break down around him. He scrambled for a 22-yard gain on the second play of that opening drive, and as promised, his running ability was on display all afternoon. He led the Spartans in rushing Saturday with eight carries for 69 yards, the most for a Michigan State quarterback since 2009.
“I’ve been saying all along, he’s probably the most athletic quarterback we’ve ever had in our 11 years here, and he showed it today,” offensive coordinator Dave Warner said. “That’s the biggest threat for a quarterback that’s got some legs like that. It’s not necessarily the quarterback run game, but the scrambling. … I mean, there’s some wide-open spaces there, and he’s a threat.”
Take the 12-yard gain he made on third-and-10 in the third quarter, inexplicably escaping a would-be sack by two Bowling Green defenders and then circling back around left end to keep alive a drive that would later end with a touchdown pass to tight end Matt Sokol for a 28-3 lead. It’s plays like those that explain why his head coach calls him “a gamer.”
“He’s got loose-play ability,” Dantonio said. “You know, when things break down around him, he can get out of trouble and he can create. He can take a bad play and make it a good play.”
That ability should prove invaluable for this offense, provided Lewerke can stay healthy. Which, of course, is why his coaches keep reminding him to slide before taking any serious contact in the open field. (The way Damion Terry played in a couple series Saturday, it’s clear there’s a big gap right now between the starter and the backups — Terry or Messiah deWeaver — at the quarterback position.)
“I’m a result-oriented guy, so when he scrambles and picks up first downs, I’m happy about it,” Warner said. “The biggest thing is him staying healthy when he does that. Sliding, or whatever he needs to do. I’m not sure there’s a magic formula to that. He made plays today. And that’s a great thing. We’ll take it.”
So will he, obviously, and that’s what his teammates are learning to love about his game. Like the shovel pass out of nowhere that he tossed to Trishton Jackson in the second quarter Saturday, turning a broken play into a 5-yard gain on third-and-4.
“I’m not sure he’s done it in a game before, but he’s done it in practice,” Warner said. “He’s got that mentality that he’s gonna be a little bit of a risk-taker, I guess. I thought that was a great play by him. I didn’t think so at the time, when I saw him do it. But it worked out good.”
Lewerke thought so, too, not surprisingly. And while he was more eager to tout some of his other decision-making Saturday, in a game where he completed 22 of 33 attempts for 250 yards and three touchdowns, the 6-foot-3, 212-pounder knows his athleticism gives him an out.
“When I skip the pocket, I’m looking mostly to throw the ball,” Lewerke said. “But if it’s open, I’m gonna run it. The flip plays and all that, it’s just instinct. Just go with whatever the defense gives you, for the most part.”
For his receivers, that means going with the flow, and knowing they can become blockers when they least expect it.
How do they know, though?
“When he gives me that look,” Stewart said, laughing. “Brian, when he gives me that wink, that means he’s running.”
And at first glance, the Spartans seem inclined to follow his lead.