Free Press sports writer Chris Solari and Lansing State Journal columnist Graham Couch share their thoughts after the Spartans’ 30-27 win over Minnesota on Saturday, Oct. 14, 2017, in Minneapolis.
MINNEAPOLIS – For a defense that had quickly became one of the nation’s best statistically – and played like it for three quarters Saturday against Minnesota – Michigan State endured a fourth-quarter fade it thought that was left in the past.
Yes, the Spartans survived, 30-27. But three touchdowns in the final 12 minutes nearly cost 22nd-ranked MSU when it appeared as if it had the Gophers figured out and shut down.
“The first and second quarter, we were out there and having fun, flying around,” sophomore linebacker Joe Bachie said. “I don’t know if we got stiff or whatever it was. We started to relax. That’s not acceptable by our defense.”
The Spartans built a 17-point lead through three quarters and appeared in control. However, Minnesota gained 166 yards in the final quarter as MSU defenders slipped on wet turf, pulled away from hits on the sidelines that allowed the Gophers to gain extra yards and had coverage breakdowns that led to scores. Backup quarterback Demry Smith threw for 131 of his 163 yards in the Gophers’ frantic fourth-quarter rally. That included touchdown passes of 28, 17 and 9 yards to wide receiver Tyler Johnson.
Smith evaded MSU’s pressure as well, adding 31 rushing yards and scrambling to extend passing plays long enough for receivers to get open.
“There’s definitely some plays we could’ve stopped. We beat up on ourselves a little bit,” sophomore defensive end Kenny Willekes said. “They came out and made some plays in that fourth quarter.”
MSU held Minnesota to 108 yards, just 28 on the ground, and six points in the first half.
The Spartans’ offense owned the third quarter, gaining 131 yards and holding the ball for all but 1 minute and 32 seconds of the period. Minnesota ran just four offensive plays for 16 yards in the quarter.
But that time on the sideline seemed to erase some of the mojo MSU’s defense had been playing with in the first half, when the Gophers managed just 28 rushing yards.
“Oh yeah, that was rough,” Willekes said. “I wanted to get out there and warm up and loosen up a little bit. But if our offense has the ball, it’s a good thing.”
Despite falling apart in the final 15 minutes, MSU still allowed just 290 total yards of offense and limited the Gophers to a season-low 74 rushing yards.
“We gotta live and learn,” Bachie said. “We gotta finish games better.”
DELAY GAME: A lightning strike in the 10-mile vicinity of TCF Bank Stadium delayed the kickoff by 34 minutes. Minnesota’s band had to clear the field, fans were ordered to leave the stands and the teams remained in the locker room.
“I don’t know if we ever really had one of those,” MSU coach Mark Dantonio said. “It was a little different. But we kept saying we had to adjust. Football’s a game of adjustment, assessing what we do and repeating things.”
It was the second straight game in which MSU dealt with heavy rains and howling winds. The Spartans survived a second-half monsoon at Michigan for a 14-10 win a week earlier.
LEWERKE STRUGGLES: MSU quarterback Brian Lewerke showed some growing pains in a run-dominated game.
The sophomore completed 9 of 18 passes for just 120 yards and ran for a season-low 9 yards on just four carries. Lewerke threw a bad interception in which he locked onto Matt Sokol and did not see Minnesota safety Duke McGhee lurking behind his tight end. He also nearly was picked off on a rollout pass to LJ Scott in which he didn’t see linebacker Kamal Martin in coverage.
It was the first game this season that Lewerke did not throw for a touchdown.
“I think when I was given a chance to throw, I did a decent job,” Lewerke said. “Obviously, the interception can’t happen. The safety made a good play and just sat and read my eyes. … It’s just something you gotta work through. You gotta look through your reads and try not to stare people down.”
INJURY REPORT: MSU played without junior offensive lineman David Beedle for the third straight game. True freshman Kevin Jarvis got his third start at right guard.
Dantonio also said he kept running back Gerald Holmes out while dealing with an ankle injury he suffered against Michigan a week earlier. The Spartans also did not play wide receiver Trishton Jackson.
MSU did not bring true freshman kick returner Andre Welch or senior offensive lineman Dennis Finley. True freshman Rocky Lombardi did make the travel roster as the Spartans’ fourth quarterback after staying at home for the Michigan game.
Contact Chris Solari: firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @chrissolari. Download our Spartans Xtra app for free on Apple and Android devices!