BLOOMINGTON, Ind. — Playing in the Big Ten can be difficult.
Playing away from the safe confines of a home stadium and crowd can be harder, according to Michigan State coach Mark Dantonio.
So when the 24th-ranked Spartans went up 28-7 with 4:49 left in the third quarter because of a 6-yard fake field-goal run by kicker Matt Coghlin, Dantonio knew Indiana (3-1, 0-1 in Big Ten) wouldn’t back down.
“I’d like to say, ‘Hey, run that play, it gained us 20 (yards), run it again,’ “ Dantonio said in his postgame news conference. “But, it’s the competitive attitude in this conference and the East division. Indiana’s a very good football team. They’ve been very competitive last year as well. They continue to play hard.”
And the Hoosiers did, by scoring 14 points in the fourth quarter, before a 75-yard touchdown run by wide receiver Jalen Nailor with 3:17 left in the game gave MSU (2-1, 1-0) its first Big Ten win of the season.
“We had to come with full focus,” Dantonio said. “I thought we had full focus through the entire trip, especially today. I knew that we would play hard, and I knew that they would play hard because that’s their M.O. I thought we came with focus and came to play.”
At first, it didn’t seem that way. On MSU’s first drive of the game, illegal formation and ineligible receiver downfield penalties forced a second-and-20, which the Spartans never recovered from, and were forced to punt.
But, after the defense forced IU into a three-and-out, quarterback Brian Lewerke led Michigan State down the field eventually connecting with Nailor for a 16-yard touchdown — the first touchdown of his MSU career. A feeling he couldn’t describe.
“I can’t even put it into words,” Nailor said. “I was just happy to have it in my hands.”
On the Indiana’s next possession, the defense stepped up again as defensive end Kenny Willekes pressured Indiana quarterback Peyton Ramsey into throwing an interception to cornerback Shakur Brown, who returned it 69 yards for a touchdown and gave the Spartans a 14-0 lead with 5:35 left in the first quarter.
And MSU’s front defensive seven created havoc all night, collecting nine tackles for loss, four sacks and forcing two interceptions, while only allowing 29 rushing yards.
“They were good, tough and physical,” Ramsey said. “They came down hill and made things really hard on us in the run game and pass rush.”
The Hoosiers would eventually 6:54 in the second quarter, as Ramsey hit running back Stevie Scott for and 8-yard touchdown to make it 14-7. Ramsey finished with 32-for-46 on passes for 272 yards, two touchdowns and two interceptions.
But, the Spartans didn’t go unanswered, as Lewerke hit tight end Matt Dotson for an 11-yard touchdown pass — the first catch by an MSU tight end this season — to make it 21-7 going into halftime. Dotson said he wasn’t totally expecting to get the ball in that situation.
“I’m not the first read,” he said. “I was totally hoping they would sleep on it, because they came back to it, and I’m just glad (Lewerke) threw me the ball.”
Lewerke continued throwing the ball in the second half, but to Indiana as he threw two interceptions — one to safety Khalil Bryant in the third quarter, and the second to linebacker Cam Jones. Lewerke finished 14-for-25 for 213 passing yards, two touchdowns, two interceptions and two fumbles, losing one to linebacker Raekwon Jones with 2:38 left in the game.
“I think we should’ve been able to put up at least 50 points, just off mistakes and interceptions by me,” Lewerke said. “Mistakes that’ve been made that could of been changed.”
Off those mistakes, the Hoosiers scored 11 points with a 35-yard field goal by kicker Logan Justus and a 65-yard touchdown pass from Ramsey to wide receiver Whop Philyor, who also had a team-high 13 receptions and 148 yards, along with Ramsey hitting wideout Nick Westbrook for a two-point conversion.
“I just saw the middle of the field and I knew Whoop was going to beat him,” Ramsey said. “I trusted him and trusted that he was going to make the play for me and he did.”
On IU’s next drive, it would cash in on another Justus field goal from 36-yards out with 3:28 left in the game and only a 28-21 MSU lead.
But, an interception by linebacker Antjuan Simmons, Nailor’s touchdown run, a Lewerke fumble and a IU three-and-out later, and the Spartans secured a 35-21 win over the Hoosiers, keeping the Old Brass Spittoon in East Lansing.
All while trying to find the team identity before next Saturday’s game against Central Michigan, Dantonio said.
“We talked about what our identity as a football team is coming into here,” Dantonio said. “The identity of our football team right now, if you would look at us and say, ‘Hey, hard to run the ball against, play a pretty good defense and bring some pressure on the quarterback. Got some big play wide receivers.’ Special teams played pretty well, considering the things we’re dealing with — a new punter, etc. But, we’re 2-1. And that’s the bottom line. We’re 2-1 at the end of the day.”
Editor's note: This story was updated at 2:22 a.m.