Niyo: Spartans go the distance with plucky underdog QB

John Niyo
The Detroit News
Spartans Rocky Lombardi, right, and Jalen Nailor celebrate at midfield after MSU beat Purdue, 23-13, on Saturday, Oct. 27, 2018 at Spartan Stadium in East Lansing.

East Lansing — Mark Dantonio said all week his team “needed to get up off the mat.”

So, naturally, Michigan State’s coach turned to a quarterback named Rocky to get the job done.

And by the time the final bell sounded on Saturday’s slugfest against Purdue, with Rocky Lombardi and the beaten-down Spartans finally taking a late-round decision, the sound in the victorious locker room was unmistakable.

“You guys should have heard the ‘Rocky’ chants in the locker room before I came over here,” defensive coordinator Mike Tressel said after Michigan State’s 23-13 win at Spartan Stadium. “The whole team: ‘Rock-y! Rock-y! Rock-y!’ It was awesome.”

And was it ever needed. A week after Michigan State’s season was given a standing eight-count, the Spartans went toe-to-toe with a team as hot as any in the Big Ten — Purdue decked Ohio State a week ago for its fourth straight win — and proved its mettle once more.  

That they did so with a backup quarterback — a redshirt freshman making his first career start — only added to the drama of Saturday’s win, one Dantonio afterward suggested was as “rewarding” a win as he’d had among the 105 total in his 12-year tenure at Michigan State.

“They stayed focused, they stayed committed,” the coach added, “and that’s what this program has been about.”

This win was about the defense holding Purdue’s explosive offense largely in check, limiting the damage from Rondale Moore (11 catches, 74 yards) and stuffing the run aside from one big play from D.J. Knox.  A week after putting up 539 yards and six touchdowns against Ohio State, the Boilermakers finished with 200 fewer yards and three turnovers Saturday, while converting just three of 13 third-down conversions.

Singing the praises

But the win also was about the Spartans’ offense finally getting healthy, in some respects. And it was Lombardi’s play, above all else, that made everyone feel better about where this season is headed.

He finished the day 26-of-46 for 318 yards and two touchdowns, though those numbers were a bit inflated by the final “throw,” a jet sweep to Jalen Nailor that went for 48 yards and a victory-clinching touchdown with 1:58 left.

Fittingly, it was Lombardi running alongside Nailor, providing one final block as he made his way across the goal line, before both of them started high-fiving fans in the stands, drawing an unsportsmanlike conduct celebration penalty.

“I didn’t hear the call,” Nailor laughed, “but that was probably why.”

Still, it was probably worth it for Lombardi, who missed out on most of the team celebration on the field after the game — ESPN kept him for an interview — but thoroughly enjoyed the locker-room serenade.

“It’s a good feeling, to know your teammates have your back,” he said, smiling.

Your coaches, too, though this performance only underscores the questions that followed last week’s loss here against in-state rival Michigan. Brian Lewerke looked like a quarterback who had no business starting against the Wolverines, let alone playing into the fourth quarter with an injured right shoulder, throwing erratically throughout a miserable 5-for-25 day.

Even Dave Warner, the Spartans’ offensive coordinator, seemed to acknowledge that Saturday, when asked if there were any regrets about Lewerke getting the nod despite Lombardi and third-stringer Theo Day getting all the practice reps leading up to the Michigan game. Lombardi might not have fared any better, and perhaps would've coughed up turnovers that Lewerke didn't. Still ... 

“We were second-guessing that a week ago today,” Warner said. “Brian, we probably put him in a bad situation by playing him without practicing, without going full tilt all week.”

Legging it out

So this week, there was little, if any, question about what the plan would be. Lombardi prepared all week as if he’d get the start — same as a week ago — and though he only found out for certain when Dantonio told him Friday night, “I kind of thought I was before that.”

By kickoff, he was more than ready, which was hardly a surprise to anyone. Because Lombardi is what Dantonio describes as a “workaholic,” a player who would spend his free time last year as a true freshman meticulously breaking down opponents’ film.

“Not as a quarterback, but almost like an analyst,” Dantonio said. “He’s that type of guy. He’s got the answers.”

He has the athleticism, too. A former state champion wrestler — no small feat growing up in Iowa — he’s listed at 6-foot-3 and 218 pounds, but he looks and plays much bigger than that. In fact, Lombardi said Warner jokingly reminded him earlier in the week “to run like a fullback.”

He did just that, taking just one sack while running 10 other times — most of them designed runs — including a 9-yard run for a first down on the Spartans’ second play from scrimmage. He picked up three other first downs with his legs, two of them with a friendly push from fullback Max Rosenthal on quarterback sneaks. 

“He’s a competitive guy, he’s a leader, he’s a tough guy, he’s a great athlete,” Dantonio said.

And for a guy who’d only thrown two passes in his collegiate career — both at the end of the Michigan game last week — he looked incredibly poised Saturday.

Sure, he missed a few deep balls that could have broken this game open. But there were a couple others that Darrell Stewart Jr. couldn’t haul in — one through his hands in the end zone, another overturned by a replay review after a terrific diving effort. And while the playbook was scaled back somewhat, Lombardi's arm strength and comfort throwing on the run added a spark.

“It took about two passes for me to really get in a rhythm,” Lombardi said, “and be like, ‘All right, this is football. I’ve played it since I was (a little kid) — it’s the same game.’”

Once he did find a rhythm, he played it like he’d done this before, particularly in a pivotal 2-minute drive for a touchdown right before halftime, completing 6-of-8 passes for 85 yards, capping it with an 11-yard throw to Stewart.

“I thought he kept his cool, he was in control,” Warner said. “That's the biggest thing: He was in control. Nothing's ever going to be perfect out there. There were some screw-ups, but he was always in control and never looked flustered and made plays. I'm excited about what he was able to accomplish today for us.”

And next week? Dantonio wouldn’t commit to anything, saying only that Lewerke needs to “get healthy” before he returns to action and, “We’ll take the steps as we go.” But Lombardi's performance Saturday certainly buys them time. And if the coaches have learned anything these last two weeks, it’s something they already should’ve known: Rocky’s ready to answer the bell.