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FINAL: Michigan State upsets No. 8 Penn State 21-17

October 13, 2018

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. -- Brian Lewerke linked up with Felton Davis III for a 25-yard touchdown pass on third-and-3 with 19 seconds remaining, and Michigan State (4-2, 2-1 B1G) came back to defeat No. 8 Penn State (4-2, 1-2 B1G), 21-17. The Spartans were a two-touchdown underdog, but made the clutch stops and passes when it mattered most. 

Lewerke and the Spartans got the ball with 1:19 left on their own 24-yard line, and mounted an 8-play, 76-yard drive that took up exactly one minute. Two critical throws to Laress Nelson were overshadowed by the final toss to Davis, his second touchdown catch of the game.

“On the last play, in the huddle, I told Brian, I’m going deep,” Davis said postgame. “I told him just throw it up and give me a chance. It’s 6’4” against 6’2”. That’s a good matchup for both sides, but it goes to who wants the ball more.” 

Penn State got the ball back and moved the ball to midfield, but Trace McSorley’s desperation heave was knocked down, and the Spartans emerged victorious.

“Football is a game of inches,” coach Mark Dantonio said postgame, echoing Al Pacino.“I keep saying that over and over. It’s a game of repetition, it’s a game of inches. Sometimes, you find those inches, sometimes they find them.” 

The Spartans outgained Penn State in yardage 418-397 overall, including a 295-192 passing edge.

Safety and team captain Khari Willis came up with a huge play on Penn State’s first drive, hitting a scrambling Trace McSorley and forcing a fumble with the ball deep in Spartan territory. Michigan State’s offense was unable to do anything with the turnover, punting after one first down, and setting the stage for the first of Miles Sanders’ two big first-half runs.

Sanders took a handoff on his own 17, and busted through a hole right up the A-gap for 78 yards before David Dowell took him down at the 5-yard line, setting up a touchdown pass on the next play.

“That big play, we responded. We got off the ground from that big play,” linebacker and team captain Joe Bachie said. “They hit us again for another one. We had to work on our tackling a little more. Overall, I’m very happy. We stayed in the fight the whole game, and you come out the end, and give your offense a chance to win.” 

The two teams traded punts for the remainder of the first quarter, until Mark Dantonio dialed up one of his trademark fake kicks. Connor Heyward took the ball as the upback on a fake punt from the Spartan 34 and danced along the Penn State sideline for 26 yards, but the trickery was not done yet. 

Two plays later, Heyward turned provider as he found Cam Chambers on a long halfback pass that set the Spartans up at the 1-yard line. Chambers exited the game with an injury to his right thumb, but later returned.

“We ran that in practice once, ran it on the (first-team) defense, and I almost threw an interception,” Heyward said. “I didn’t know we were gonna run it. I guess they just believed in me to make a play.” 

It took four plays, a recovered fumble, and an unsportsmanlike penalty on Penn State, but Michigan State eventually punched the ball in from the 1-yard line with LaDarius Jefferson’s second career touchdown. 

In the second quarter, a Michigan State defense that limited the Nittany Lions to only six first downs all half was torched for one more big play courtesy of Sanders.

Sanders took a draw play from the Spartan 48 off-tackle, broke the tackle of Naquan Jones at the line of scrimmage, and was off. Tyriq Thompson, Andrew Dowell, Jacob Panasiuk, and Justin Layne all had chances, but Sanders pinballed his way down the field in his best Saquon Barkley rendition, giving the Nittany Lions a 14-7 lead heading into the locker room. 

Michigan State survived an early interception in the third quarter, as the defense held Penn State on a fourth down. The Spartans tied the game with 6:10 remaining in the third quarter, as Davis dragged a toe at the front pylon of the end zone on a 20-yard pass from Lewerke.

The Spartans continued to tread water, as two Penn State drives deep into Spartan territory yielded only three points. Jake Pinegar missed a 36-yard field goal late in the third for the Nittany Lions, then converted on a 20-yard kick after Penn State was unable to score from a goal-to-go situation. The kick gave Penn State a 17-14 lead with 9:21 left.

The Spartans drove to the Penn State 23-yard line, and, rather than kicking a field goal, elected to try another fake with 5:19 remaining. This pass, from Lewerke to defensive tackle Raequan Williams, fell incomplete, and the game appeared out of reach. 

“I didn’t want to play for a tie,” Dantonio said. We worked on it, it was Little Giants (the fake field goal Dantonio used to beat Notre Dame in 2010). We wanted to play to win, didn’t want to play to line up and try to tie it.” 

After Penn State’s drive stalled, the Spartans had what looked to be their last chance offensively. But Lewerke was sacked on third-and-five, and the Spartans punted with 1:46 remaining, trailing by three.

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“We had three timeouts left,” Dantonio said. “I felt that if we could stop them, they were probably going to run the ball to use the clock and our timeouts, that we would get the ball back one more time and have another shot at it.” 

Justin Layne stopped McSorley on a third down scramble, and the Michigan State offense was given one more chance.

“He’s a guy who likes to step up in the pocket, we knew that,” Bachie said. “He feels comfortable when he steps up, likes to make things happen. We had to have a guy on him.” 

The Spartans marched to the Penn State 25, and despite both Davis and Nelson sustaining injuries on the drive, Davis was back in for the third down. Lewerke admitted that no coverage would have stopped him from going in the direction of his favorite target.

“I knew 100% I was going to him,” he said. “Coach (Dave, the offensive coordinator) Warner called a fade, and I knew that even if he was double-covered, I was probably gonna throw it to him. Anytime I throw the ball to him, somewhere in the air, he is bound to make a play.” 

Dantonio cited the earlier losses, to Arizona State and to Northwestern last week, as reasons that this win was even sweeter.

“That’s what keeps you coaching, to be honest with you,” he said. “In moments like this, you see people gear up, and get themselves ready to go. I can’t describe it to you, really.” 

The Spartans will now gear up for an in-state rivalry matchup against the University of Michigan next Saturday at noon inside Spartan Stadium. 

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