Niyo: Freshman receivers grow up fast for Spartans

John Niyo
The Detroit News
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Michigan State's Hunter Rison stretches out for a first down with Indiana's Jonathan Crawford defending in the fourth quarter.

East Lansing — One is a legacy, the other just feels like it, since he sees his dad around the football building every day.

But for Michigan State’s rookie receiving tandem — freshmen Hunter Rison and Cody White — this still felt like a coming-of-age moment. Because as the Spartans salvaged a win Saturday, rallying in the fourth quarter for a 17-9 victory over Indiana, it was the kids who came up with the biggest plays.

“They made a name for themselves today,” offensive coordinator Dave Warner said. “Because they made some big-time catches in critical situations.”

Did they ever. White had a career day — almost literally, as he surpassed his cumulative season totals in one afternoon — with six receptions for 99 yards Saturday, while Rison came up with two clutch catches of his own in the fourth quarter.


And on a day where Michigan State’s offense was grinding its gears all afternoon — the run game managed just 89 yards on 44 carries, if you include three sacks and one muffed shotgun snap — those performances meant that much more.

Learning curve

If not for the freshmen, the Spartans would no longer control their own fate in the Big Ten title chase. And for a team relying on its youth in ways that no major-college coach truly wants to, this certainly was another “building block” to add to the foundation head coach Mark Dantonio keeps inspecting.

“I think we’re learning how to win, yeah,” Dantonio said. “But after last season, we’re all learning.”

What we know now is easy enough to quantify. At 6-1 overall, the Spartans have all but guaranteed their season will extend into December. (“We’re bowling,” Dantonio told his team in the postgame locker room.) And at 4-0 in the Big Ten, they’ll absolutely be playing meaningful games in November, unlike a year ago.

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But what’s harder to measure is just what this does for the learning curve for some of these underclassmen, whether you're talking about sophomore cornerback Justin Layne, who shadowed Indiana’s Simmie Cobbs all afternoon, or those freshman wideouts.

Like most of their offensive teammates, Rison and White had a rough start Saturday, struggling to get separation and clearly getting crossed up with communication once or twice. Quarterback Brian Lewerke was off-balance and off-target with some of his throws as well, though Indiana’s defense certainly had something to do with that. (The Hoosiers came into the game ranked No. 2 nationally in three-and-outs forced.)

Whatever the reasons, “at the end of the game, he made the throws he needs to make,” Dantonio said of Lewerke.

And when he did, it was the youngsters who grabbed the spotlight: Rison, the four-star recruit from Ann Arbor and son of former Spartans star Andre Rison, and White, the former Walled Lake Western standout whose father, Sheldon, is now Michigan State’s director of player personnel after a lengthy NFL career as a player and executive.

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Of the nine combined touches for White and Rison in this game, seven produced first downs, including three critical plays on the final two scoring drives. Four, actually, if you include White’s 16-yard reception with the Spartans facing third-and-19 after Lewerke took a sack near midfield. Michigan State was trailing 9-3 midway through the fourth quarter and even Dantonio admitted afterward the momentum in Indiana’s favor “felt like a wave” crashing.

But White took an errant throw and gave the Spartans a short-yardage chance on fourth down, which is all his pal Rison needed — a chance. His grab on fourth-and-3, and the lunge he made to keep the drive alive, set the stage for Lewerke’s 10-yard touchdown toss to Felton Davis a few plays later.

On the next drive, it was Rison’s 9-yard grab on third-and-8 that kept the chains moving early, and White’s 34-yard reception — turning a simple curl on third-and-9 into a huge gain — that all set up L.J. Scott’s final touchdown run.

Still sputtering

“We came in together, and I see how he works, how he studies, so I really can’t say this is a surprise to me,” Rison said. “It was just a matter of time before he had his breakout game. And today was the day.”

A day, he added, where all the preparation paid off. Rison was an early enrollee last winter, and White likewise has proven to be a quick study.

“We go hard,” Rison said. “There’s no days off, no plays off. We prepare like we’re starters and we prepare like the go-to guys. And that’s what you get when you prepare like that.”

Of course, this is also what you get some days in the Big Ten, where defense still occasionally rules the roost.

Saturday’s first half at Spartan Stadium featured nearly as many punts (11) as first downs (13), and, frankly, it couldn’t end soon enough. Both coaches tried to maneuver for a late score before halftime, but all that did was extend the agony: Four possessions in the final 4 ½ minutes produced just 10 plays and nine total yards.

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Even in a more entertaining second half, the homecoming crowd was treated to five three-and-outs. Michigan State fans probably can thank an old rival for some measure of Saturday’s survival as well. Mike DeBord played it painfully safe in the red zone twice Saturday, and that sound you heard as the former Michigan coordinator called three straight running plays on first-and-10 from the 11 early in the fourth quarter might’ve been the air going out of the Hoosiers’ ballooning confidence.

Still, it wasn’t Michigan State’s game until they found a way to grab it. And when he was asked Saturday what it felt like to do just that, White sure didn’t sound like a freshman anymore.

What was going through his mind?

“Stay calm, and just make the play,” White said. “Do what I’ve been doing since I was a young kid: Just accepting the moment.”.

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