With 4:07 left in the fourth quarter and Michigan State down 10-7 to Rutgers, the Spartans needed a big play, something they didn’t have all Saturday evening.
Quarterback Rocky Lombardi snapped the ball, faked the handoff to running back Connor Heyward and gave it to wide receiver Cody White on the end around, running on the right side of the field towards the south end zone.
And when White got the play call, he knew what he needed to do.
“Make a big play,” said White, who also had four catches for 44 yards against the Scarlet Knights. “Knowing that the game was tight, we tried to put the ball in my hands and try to make a move.”
White made the move, running into the end zone to make it a 14-10 lead with 3:57 left in the game, and helping MSU (7-5, 5-4 in Big Ten) beat Rutgers (1-11, 0-9) by that same score to give 18 seniors their last regular-season victory in Spartan Stadium.
“Big win for our football program, you know the seventh win,” MSU coach Mark Dantonio said. “We’ve been on that milestone here for a couple weeks. So, I thought it was a big moment for us.”
Lombardi went 19-of-43 for 173 yards, a touchdown and an interception. Heyward ran 19 times for 81 yards, while catching four passes for 27 yards. Wide receiver Darrell Stewart Jr. had a team-high seven catches for 53 yards. The Spartans totaled 310 yards.
Which wasn’t enough to satisfy Lombardi, even though MSU had 23 first downs compared to Rutgers’ 10.
“We couldn’t seem to finish drives,” Lombardi said. “It seemed we were moving the ball OK, had decent yardage — not good enough, but decent. We just couldn’t finish drives. I felt like we had to drive down the field a lot, but it was tough. But, you gotta do it to be a good team.”
On the other side, Rutgers was led by quarterback Giovanni Rescigno, who went 9-of-17 for 109 yards, a touchdown and interception, while running a team-high 13 times for 61 yards.
“I thought it was a very gutsy performance,” Rutgers coach Chirs Ash said. “Obviously there's some plays he'd like to take back and do better, but he was a warrior out there. He ran the ball, dropped back when we passed the ball and pulled the ball out a lot and ran when things weren't there or guys were covered.”
Defensive coordinator Mike Tressel said his defense was surprised by Rescigno’s running ability, especially since they didn’t know if Rescigno or if quarterback Artur Sitkowski would get the start.
“But, we did say to our guys in our preparation if that No. 17’s in, he’s going to look to his first read, tuck it and go type of guy, which can be a little bit scary,” Tressel said. “We had a spy on him a number of times, where he was still able to wiggle his way out, and we didn’t do a good enough job of that.”
Though MSU came out on top, Rutgers was first to put points on the board, with Rescigno tossing a 27-yard touchdown to Vokolek to make it 7-0 with 6:15 to go in the first quarter.
It’d remain that way until Lombardi found tight end Matt Sokol for an 18-yard touchdown pass to make it 7-7 with 7:04 left in the second quarter for not only Sokol’s first touchdown this season, but his only catch of the evening and his last in Spartan Stadium.
“It feels great to have that opportunity to go out with all the guys that I have been here with for four or five years,” Sokol said. “Been through a lot with this team this year, and I'm so proud of how we fought the whole game and found a way to win.”
Then, after a six-play, 21-yard drive by Rutgers and a 10-play, 40-yard drive by MSU, punter William Przystup sent it 35 yards, Rutgers defensive back Saquan Hampton fumbled by letting the ball touch him, which led to a recovery by MSU safety Xavier Henderson on Rutgers’ 13-yard line with 53 seconds left in the first half.
However, nothing came of it, as quarterback and holder Brian Lewerke fumbled the field goal snap. He then tried to make a play, but ended up throwing an interception with 15 seconds left in the first half, and ended it with a kneel from Rescigno.
Coming out of the half, following a 48-yard punt by Rutgers punter Adam Korsak, MSU was putting together a eight-play, 36-yard drive. Then on the the ninth play, Lombardi threw a deep interception to Hampton, giving the Scarlet Knights on their 33.
But, even with Lombardi’s interception and overall performance, Dantonio said Lombardi was going to play the whole game Saturday no matter what.
“It was his deal,” Dantonio said. “I think you guys know I am going to try and stay with our guy. I may get criticized for that but I think that I need to ante up a little bit sometimes with those guys. For him, what I see in Rocky Lombardi is a very competitive guy. A competitive spirit…
“Just because he doesn't make the play the venue isn't too big for him. He can stand in there and compete and have confidence in himself. He will lead, he will keep playing, and fight through the tough times.”
The tough time was erased momentarily, however, when cornerback Josiah Scott picked off running back Isaih Pacheco on a running back pass with 6:16 left in the third quarter.
“I saw one guy release downfield, and then he stopped for a little bit and then released down field, and then I tried to get back as fast as I can,” said Scott, who had three total tackles and two interceptions. “And I saw my safety play like a post or a fade behind me, so I saw him go back to that. So, I was able to play the tight end hard, and I don’t think the quarterback saw me — he threw it straight to me.”
But, like Hampton fumble, nothing came of the turnover.
In fact, nobody scored until a 34-yard field goal by Rutgers kicker Justin Davidovicz made it 10-7 with 7:52 left in the game.
An MSU and Rutgers drive later, along with a 43-yard punt by Worsak returned by wide receiver Brandon Sowards to the Scarlet Knights’ 35, set up the eventual game-winning 22-yard run by White.
“I think probably the biggest place in the game was probably the punt, the ensuing series where we run the option on third down and Rocky picks up the first down and then obviously the reverse for a touchdown – to Cody White,” Dantonio said.
On Rutgers’ next drive, though, it would move the ball 50 yards on five plays.
But, Scott secured his second interception on MSU’s 3-yard line with 1:32 left in the game. And a 26-yard run by Heyward sealed the Spartans’ victory.
And now, Dantonio’s team awaits for next Sunday, when it finds out what bowl it’ll be attending.
“I'm really happy for our football team and our seniors especially,” Dantonio said. “Took a step forward today and we'll see how it all shakes out in the bowl season but just got to keep getting better. We had some guys open and missed some throws but hey, a win is a win and like I've said before, they all count one.”
This story was updated at 10:46 p.m. Saturday.