COLUMBUS, Ohio — It could've been a statement drive.
To show Ohio State and all 104,797 people inside of Ohio Stadium that this wasn't Indiana. Or Nebraska. Or Cincinnati. Or Florida Atlantic. Or Miami (Ohio).
Michigan State trailed the Buckeyes 17-7 midway through the second quarter, and the Spartans were on the move again. Fifth-year quarterback Brian Lewerke and MSU's offense had a third-and-6 from the 21-yard line. Lewerke took the snap and immediately had two guys wide open — Cody White coming across the field and La'Darius Jefferson, who beat his defender out of the backfield on a wheel route.
One way or another, this play should have ended up with a touchdown to bring the Spartans back within three points. Lewerke opted for White. He floated the ball slightly over White's stretched arms for an incompletion.
“Just hoping that maybe in someway it gets completed," Lewerke said. "Because I knew right when it came off my hand, I tried to aim it a little bit, I think. He was making his way all across on a crossing route, so I had to wait in the pocket a little longer than usual, but he was open. I just got to hit him.”
It would have been six. It ended up being three on a 39-yard Matt Coghlin field goal.
Michigan State trailed 17-10, and on the ensuing possession, OSU running back J.K. Dobbins made the Spartans pay for not capitalizing. His 67-yard touchdown run put the Buckeyes up 24-10 — a deficit MSU couldn't come back from.
Who knows how the final result would have be effected if Lewerke and White converted on that potential touchdown. But the Buckeyes may have not been able to blow the doors open en route to a 34-10 win over the Spartans.
That's because Michigan State had its chances. It just missed them by an outstretched arm.
"In the end, when you look at the football game, we got to play at our best, which I don't think that we did," Michigan State Head Coach Mark Dantonio said. "We made some plays. We also had some missed opportunities and some mistakes."
Michigan State's defense came out fierce and hot, holding the Buckeyes to a three-and-out on their first possession. But, on Michigan State's second play, White had the ball ripped out of his grasp after making a would-be first down catch, and Ohio State set up in Spartan territory.
Michigan State managed to avert disaster when Blake Haubeil missed a 37-yard field goal.
Two plays later, the Spartans put the ball on the turf again. On an option play, Lewerke pitched the ball to Collins, who failed to secure it, and the Buckeyes recovered again.
“If the (defensive end) is too far out, the right tackle can’t block him. He goes up to the backer," Lewerke said. "That's what it was there. So I had to make a quick pitch. Elijah was a little close, I'm not sure if he was quite ready. My pitch was a little hot too, so that didn’t make it easy, but it's just an error there.”
This one, the Spartans couldn't remain clean on, when Haubeil connected from the 39-yard line to give the Buckeyes an early 3-0 lead.
After a 60-yard touchdown by Binjimen Victor, the Spartans responded with a five-play, 75-yard drive that ended in a 20-yard touchdown to Darrell Stewart Jr. Lewerke ran for 13 yards on a read-option to open the possession. Then, Elijah Collins found daylight in OSU's secondary for a 23-yard gain before Lewerke connected with Matt Seybert for 19 yards on the play preceding Stewart Jr.'s touchdown.
Lewerke referenced this drive as the "peak moment of hope" for the Spartans. Where they thought they had a shot to do something special Saturday night.
“We moved the ball," Lewerke said. "I think it was a five-play drive, so it wasn’t very long. We moved it really well. Had a touchdown, it was a close game. It felt like, 'hey, let’s get this going.' Obviously didn’t start off very hot, so it did help. I thought we could get it going after that.”
The Buckeyes and their high-powered offense had an answer, too — in the form of their dynamic sophomore quarterback, Justin Fields. A 35-yard scamper by the sophomore quickly moved the ball into MSU's side of the field, and four plays later, he connected with his tight end Luke Farrell for a 21-yard touchdown to put the Buckeyes up 17-7.
This was the statement drive.
The chance Michigan State could show that it was able to keep pace with the fourth-ranked Buckeyes.
The Spartans, once again, moved the ball downfield. Lewerke connected with C.J. Hayes for a 16-yard pass to move the sticks on a third-and-13. A couple plays later, Lewerke connected with Stewart Jr. for 18 yards. But, the drive stalled, and MSU ended up with a field goal from Coghlin.
Lewerke wouldn't say that the missed chance was a game-flipper, but he knew the chance the Spartans let slip through their grasp could cost them.
"It would have been 17-14 at that time," Lewerke said. "Instead, it goes to 24-10 or 24-3. That sucked that we couldn’t convert that one.”
Out of the break, Michigan State needed a drive. It was no longer about making a statement — but at this point, just keeping it from a blowout. The Spartans moved the ball downfield again, only to have the drive stall in the red zone — again — followed by a missed 27-yard field goal by Matt Coghlin.
“I thought he got pressured," Dantonio said. "The guy ran right up the middle on him.”
Combined with the missed touchdown chance midway through the second quarter, Lewerke called this sequence a "nice little punch to the gut".
So was White's fumble. And Collins'. And the dropped passes in between.
Capitalizing on those chances maybe wouldn't have changed Michigan State's final outcome. The Buckeyes hit on all cylinders in the second quarter to distance themselves.
The opportunities were there for MSU to make it interesting, and it knows it left a ton on the field.
“We had so many chances, getting in the red zone," Stewart Jr. said. "We just have to cash out. I mean, you gotta cash out."