EVANSTON — There is no debate. Michigan State senior wide receiver Darrell Stewart Jr. is playing the best football of his college career. He recognizes it. His teammates do too, and so does his coach.
“Darrell is playing very well," Michigan State coach Mark Dantonio said after the Spartans' 31-10 win against Northwestern. "I’ve always said that if you want to have a championship football team, your seniors really have to have their best years. And so far, Darrell is playing as well as he’s played.”
Saturday's game against the Wildcats to open Big Ten play was a little more complicated. Stewart, a native of Houston, was playing with a heavy heart. Texas' largest city has experienced extreme flooding over the past couple of days, and Stewart was worried about his family. This wasn't the first time his hometown has dealt with tragedy. In 2017, Stewart was one of the players on Michigan State's roster — including Texas native Tyler Higby — to travel down to Houston during the team's bye week and help volunteer with the Hurricane Harvey relief efforts.
“I talked to my mom. She went to Austin with my little brother," Stewart said of the flooding this past week. "At first it was kind of hard ... She wanted me to be focused for the game, so that's one thing I took in. I made sure I called all of my family and made sure everyone was good.”
Stewart took that advice from his mom, Tamara Johnson, and focused on Saturday's game. And the results were pivotal for Michigan State's success.
For the fourth-consecutive game to open the season, Stewart was Michigan State's leading receiver. He followed up two 100-plus yard performances against Western Michigan and Arizona State with five catches for 77 yards against Northwestern. The Spartans were able to utilize Stewart's speed in open areas, sending him on crossing routes to create mismatches against the Wildcat defenders.
“One thing that (Dantonio) always tells us is there’s going to be opportunities in a game. You just have to take the opportunities and run with it," Stewart said.
Once again, Stewart became a go-to target for Brian Lewerke when the Spartans needed a catch. That helped Michigan State's offense score their most points against a Power Five opponent since Sept. 22, 2018 against Indiana.
“It's definitely important," Stewart said. "Just showing that we can come out here and score points. We’re scoring touchdowns, and that's a beautiful thing. One thing about that, we just have to keep it consistent. Even with Western Michigan when we were scoring points and then the following game against Arizona State, we didn’t. So, we can't get too high, get too low. We just have to come to practice, ready to go to work.”
For just a couple of hours, Stewart was able to put away the struggles going on back home and focus on the game he loves. It's what he needed, mentally. And it's what Michigan State needed to get past the Wildcats.
“One thing that I do love about football ... I’m like a kid on the playground again, just having fun. (I) get to be able to show my personality," Stewart said. "You've gotta think about it. Football, you can come hit somebody and don’t get in trouble, so that’s one of the great things for me.
"And just have fun. You just let go of all your problems before you hit that line, and once you play football, everything disappears.”