MSU blasts Wazzu, achieves goals and then some for 10th win
SAN DIEGO — For all the goodwill, the optimism, the sheer faith the Spartan football team injected into its fans in 2017, there were always the buts, the what ifs. The minuscule cracks in the armor, in other words. The flaws a pessimist could point at and dig into, revealing a sometimes bitter truth.
For the most part, the criticisms were fair. The Spartans were a flawed team. And they still are, otherwise they’d be in the College Football Playoff for the second time.
But on Thursday night, there was little — if any — of that lingering doubt. There were some shreds, especially early when the Spartan offense started slow. But those negative thoughts quickly dissipated as MSU etched its season into the history books.
The Spartans thoroughly trashed the No. 18 Washington State Cougars, hanging 42 points en route to a morale-boosting, comfortable victory.
Head coach Mark Dantonio witnessed his 100th win as a Spartan — and then some.
“We're probably a top-15 team or a little better after the year last year,” Dantonio said. “So we're sort of back to where we've been and I think we reaffirmed our stature in college football.”
A “program win,” he called it. And thus concluded the turnaround. Hushed whispers of 3-9 are now replaced with joyous cheers of 10-3; a Holiday Bowl win included on MSU’s stellar resume.
With a heavy array of underclassmen on the roster, too, chatter of LJ Scott’s return sets up hope and expectations for 2018, a sharp contrast to the despair and anguish seen just one year ago.
“It wasn't good enough to win nine games, they wanted to win 10,” Dantonio said. “They came here with a mindset and I think sometimes you've got to go with that mindset. We needed to have a great bowl game, we couldn't afford to have problems off the field.”
The offense, the defense, the everything
As has been customary all season long, quarterback Brian Lewerke had a flair for the theatrics. It was no different against the Cougars, who often missed their chance at snagging the redshirt sophomore before he wreaked havoc.
He danced, swerved and avoided pressure from Washington State, making plays with his legs. And yes, his arm as well.
It all culminated with his first touchdown pass to freshman Cody White. After scrambling out of the pocket, he found the wideout in the back of the end zone after throwing across his body — some theatrics.
“I feel like that one got us going,” White said. “I just stayed with Brian. Brian scrambled out of the pocket and we just made eye contact and he just found me. Just the excitement from the team and just the momentum after that was great for the team.”
And then the floodgates opened. The Spartans scored on their next four drives, riding all the momentum the Cougars desperately sought after. It was capped off when fifth-year senior quarterback Damion Terry found the end zone in his final game as a Spartan.
Armed with a commanding 35-3 lead, though, it wasn’t just the offense putting in work. The defense continued its spirited play, shutting down the Washington State offense. It was another punishing effort; one Spartan fans know all too well.
On four of the Cougars’ first five drives, the Spartan defenders forced a three-and-out. While Wazzu quarterback Luke Falk was out because of an injury, the Cougars slotted in Tyler Hilinski, an abrupt announcement that was made right before kickoff.
“Even without Luke, they're a great team,” senior linebacker Chris Frey, who recovered a fumble himself, said. “I think it shows how much we studied film in the few weeks that we had to get ready for this team. We used that extra time to try and master what they do and figure out how we can key on specific plays.”
And while the Cougars did inch back with a pair of late touchdowns, both the offense and defense put them to rest; loud exclamation points taking the place of harmless lullabies.
The offense had Scott rushing into the end zone for the dagger, flashes of his signature high-step celebration on display — though, yes, he was just about caught from behind. Junior safety Khari Willis finally tucked the game to bed with an interception in the waning moments.
A pair of junior starters who, no less, will both be back for the Spartans next year.
“We can build off momentum that this game brings us,” Lewerke said. “And with a lot of young guys we still have a lot of work to be done and a lot of potential to be reached.”
As soon as Scott announced on live TV he’ll represent the green and white once more, the boiling point was at its peak. The hype complimented the trophy presentation as Spartan fans rode a high all across the nation.
The well-documented 19 of 22 returning starters allow for continuity — and opens the door for the natural progression of youngsters aging to leaders.
“This season meant so much because of where we came from, because of the youth of the football team and maybe the doubt from the outsiders along the way,” Dantonio said. “We've had some big games.”
Significant contributors in the grain of linebacker Joe Bachie and Lewerke learned of the magnitude and atmosphere of the postseason. And especially for an underclassman-turning-veteran in Bachie, who'll be passed the torch of the next great linebacker in Spartan lore.
Postgame, after all the emotional high of a victory, Frey said he went up to Bachie to express his gratitude, from one current leader to the next one up.
“I guess I molded into kind of that leader on defense,” Bachie said. “And you got the captain of your team telling you saying stuff to you like that, it means a lot. He’s been truly a brother; he’s been my roommate now for a year.”
As for the best of the returners, singling each and every one out read like a long grocery list.
The wide receiving corps is headlined by the likes of White and Felton Davis III, among others. And as center Brian Allen graduates, he’ll pursue his NFL dream after leaving his influence on a drove of young offensive linemen.
Bachie anchors a defense that finished allowing less than 300 total yards per game, a mark that will have MSU within the top-10 in the nation.
“The future is bright for this team,” Frey said. “I'm excited to continue watching this team grow because we have so many young guys that have the ability to be great and with the work ethic I know they have that they showed in the off-season. The sky is the limit for everybody on this team.”
And that’s it
Dantonio remembers it, and so will every college football athlete ever — taking off the jersey for the final time. It’s not an identical, cookie-cutter type experience for every player, but it’s an inevitable moment nonetheless.
So, finally, the Spartans will bid adieu to their senior class. Key leaders like Frey and Terry had their shining moments in the game contributing on and off the field. Frey earned the defensive MVP honor of the bowl, a significant honor for the linebacker.
“I got back to the locker room and I was talking to (fellow senior) Shane Jones and I don't want to take this jersey off,” Frey said. “I'm going to take as much time as I can in my jersey.”
Others like tailback Gerald Holmes and defensive end Demetrius Cooper were crucial parts of past teams, not just the 2017 edition. Allen, too, has been the motor on a youthful offensive line.
The “bounce-back” class has been well-documented, and finally, their time in the green and white is up.
“We've got good players and we're young and we've had great leadership from our seniors,” Dantonio said. “There were only four seniors that played a ton, but the rest of them led in their own ways and their own areas, and because of that I think good things followed.”
Aside from the seniors, the returning Spartans will head into the dormant winter. Well, that is until 5 a.m. workouts and spring football are back.
The cycle of college football, much like life.
“I would like to say we're back, but 2018 is around the corner,” Dantonio said. “So you can't say that because you've got to start proving yourself all over again. But this was as great of a football season that I have had as a coach because of where we came from and what we were able to accomplish.”