Friday, June 5, 2020

How it happened: MSU stuns U-M, defense dominates in 'crucial' win

October 9, 2017
The Spartans warm up before the game against University of Michigan on Oct. 7, 2017, at Michigan Stadium. The Spartans defeated the Wolverines 14-10.
The Spartans warm up before the game against University of Michigan on Oct. 7, 2017, at Michigan Stadium. The Spartans defeated the Wolverines 14-10. —
Photo by Anntaninna Biondo | The State News

As Michigan quarterback John O’Korn threw a Hail Mary for the final play of the game, over 100,000 people collectively held their breath.

The ball disappeared into a sea of players as hope and despair — two polar opposites — hung in the balance between two waiting fan bases. Then, after a few moments, the pigskin emerged, trickling away harmlessly from the scrum.

The Spartans had done it — again.

For the eighth time in the last 10 years under head coach Mark Dantonio, MSU claimed state supremacy in its 14-10 win over the Michigan Wolverines. The game was never pretty, the wet conditions and unforgiving rain played a role in that.

But despite facing overwhelming odds on the road against the then-No. 7 U-M, the young MSU squad emerged as the victors, no hailing required.

“We’ve done it eight times,” Dantonio said after the game. “I don’t know why there’s a lot of doubt.”

The Spartans, after starting Big Ten play 2-0, are now contenders in the East division after the win. But with seven games left in the season, there’s still a long way to go.

Dantonio himself said he isn’t sure what he has in his team. But he admitted the pieces are there.

“We’re becoming a good team,” Dantonio said. “I don’t know if we’re there yet, but we’re 4-1.”

Paul Bunyan returns to East Lansing

Just mere moments after the Spartans stunned U-M on the road, linebacker Chris Frey knew what he was missing — the Paul Bunyan trophy.

“I started to go celebrate and then I was like, ‘Alright, I need to get Paul,” Frey said. “He’s back home where he’s supposed to be. We’re excited to have him back.”

While the win over Michigan was just one football game amidst a long season, the Spartans will celebrate. For Frey, a senior, he has extra motivation, accumulating a winning 3-1 record against U-M in his four years.

The win is already well-documented, Dantonio’s eighth in 11 tries as the leader of MSU football. He raised his hand high in the air, describing how important this win was for him.

“I knew that our football team and our program would basically come back up to the top,” Dantonio said. “That’s what we’re trying to do. We’re just trying to do it step by step.”

Turnover-fest reigns supreme

The Spartans outdid themselves against U-M — literally. The defense came into the game with a goal of four turnovers, and 60 soaked, wet minutes later, the core had one more than that with five takeaways.

The first two came in the opening half as a pair of fumbles. The other three, those were courtesy of O’Korn, were all interceptions on back-to-back-to-back U-M drives in the second half.

“We talk about turnovers all the time, it’s something that Coach D preaches,” linebacker Joe Bachie said. “We win the turnover margin, we have a very good chance to win the game.”

A number of key Spartans had the game of their lives. Safety David Dowell, starting alongside brother and linebacker Andrew Dowell, shined in his role. The redshirt sophomore collected two interceptions and recovered a fumble.

That’s excluding his seven total tackles and pass break-up. All in all, it was a solid game for one of the many underclassmen on the roster.

“The coaches put us in the right place to make the play,” David said on his turnovers. “I’m just glad I was able to make the plays when they came to me.”

For fellow safety Khari Willis, he returned to a venue where it all began for him. He started his first collegiate game two years ago at Michigan Stadium.

And the junior was all over the place recording 10 tackles, eight of the solo variety.

Listing the accomplishments of all of the defense’s playmakers read like a long grocery list. Bachie continued his extraordinary play, adding a sack and a fumble recovery. Defensive end Kenny Willekes emerged as a key cog on an unknown line, adding a career-high two sacks.

But as the game reached its climax and the rain soaked everything in its path, one thing became clear — the defense would need to finish the game.

“I was walking up and down the sideline the whole fourth quarter talking about how we’re going to have to win this game as a defense,” David said. “When it came down to the wire, we were able to get it done.”

In some ways, the weather aided the Spartan defense in making plays with the slippery conditions making it tough to throw the ball.

But amongst the many aspects of the game the Spartans pride themselves on — stopping the run, creating takeaways — the shift in mentality was one of them.

“We talked about it in the locker room, a storm is brewing,” Andrew Dowell said. “But we were going to be the storm. We dressed in all-white, we were going to be a storm white today and that’s what we did today as a defense and as a team.”

Offense struggles, stymied by rain

Late in the game, nursing just a four point lead and facing a third-and-3, those three simple yards looked like a tall task — one even Paul Bunyan would struggle with.

The Spartan offense converted just one other first down that entire second half. As the clock had just 2:13 left, a first down would have virtually sealed the game for MSU. Otherwise, punt the pigskin away and trust the defense for one last stop.

So when the ball was snapped and quarterback Brian Lewerke fumbled it, there was an emphatic cheer at Michigan Stadium. Within those next few seconds, not quite.

The redshirt sophomore scooped the ball up, tucked it and somehow got the first down. Theatrics played a role in the conversion as the officials initially reviewed the play only to call it as stands on the field.

“I knew the run was designed to go to the left so I just picked it up and started going that way,” Lewerke said. “It was a quarterback designed run, so I knew where I was supposed to go and I knew I’d have blockers on that side, so I just tried my best to get the first down.”

Lewerke — and virtually the entire offense — scuffled the entire second half. Aside from their last drive of the game, the Spartans didn’t pick up a single first down the second half of the game.

They showed signs of life when the forecast was clear, scoring their pair of touchdowns in the first half. One came on a designed screen that bamboozled the U-M defense.

And as MSU jumped to the quick 14-3 lead, Lewerke credited his dad for that assist.

“My dad had told me to score as many points as you can in the first half because in the second half you’re not going to be able to pass the ball,” Lewerke said. “I’m glad we did that, we got two touchdowns in the first half. I definitely took what he said and applied it.”

On a night where tailback LJ Scott was “nicked” up and unavailable, the Spartan rushing attack proved formidable. Fellow running back Gerald Holmes was banged up due to injuries, but MSU still rushed for an impressive 158 yards.

MSU’s third running back, Madre London, filled the void running for 59 yards on 10 carries. But the options were limited, compared to the usual array of choices the team is dealt with.

A target for a myriad of Spartan fans’ criticism, Dantonio had no qualms with co-offensive coordinator Dave Warner’s play calling, especially because of the storm.

“Well I think we played through the weather,” Dantonio said. “We didn’t gamble too much, you know we didn’t go down the field with the ball at all the second half because of the weather. You know it was blowing out there and it was wet so everything was intermediate.”

The Big Ten race

Through two games, MSU is still perfect in conference play, sporting a 2-0 record. The Spartans, coupled with ranked Penn State and Ohio State, are the only undefeated teams left in the East division.

The green and white don’t play those teams until November. It will have to navigate the rest of its Big Ten schedule in October.

“We’re not going to act like this is another game, this is a crucial win for us,” David Dowell said. “I’m just excited we were able to pull it out. Like I said, it’s a long season and we got to get ready for next week.”

The Spartans have spoken all season about the lofty goals they shoot for once Big Ten play rolls around. It’s an aspect of his team Dantonio has yet to shy away from.

“I told our football team and every player that comes here to dream big, and I’m not different from that,” Dantonio said. “I’m going to dream big. We’ve been in the playoffs, we’ve won three Big Ten championships and we’ve beaten our rival. We’ve fallen down in other areas, but we’re going to drive and always rise up.”

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