Happy Valley, PA
With its season on the brink following last week’s loss to Northwestern, a desperate and injury-plagued Michigan State team hit the road to face No. 8 ranked Penn State, looking to bounce back from a heartbreaking loss to Ohio State two weeks ago, on Saturday afternoon.
Behind a dominant defensive effort and a touchdown pass from Brian Lewerke to Felton Davis III with 19 seconds left to play to upset the Nittany Lions, 21-17, staying alive in the Big Ten East race for at least one more week.
Saturday’s result also marks the second loss in the Big Ten East for Penn State, putting the Nittany Lions on the outside looking in at a potential chance of playing for a Big Ten title.
With Michigan State trailing 17-14 late in the fourth quarter, head coach Mark Dantonio elected to punt the ball away with just 1:46 remaining, but with all three timeouts remaining, choosing to trust his defense rather than try to convert a 4th down and 10 inside Spartan territory.
The defense would come through on the Penn State drive, forcing a quick three-and-out and Penn State punt, giving the offense the ball back at the Michigan State 24-yard line with just 1:10 remaining and one timeout.
Aside from very nearly throwing an interception with 58 seconds left, Lewerke quickly and effectively drove the Michigan State offense down the field, completing two passes to Laress Nelson and Connor Heyward, putting the ball at the 25-yard line with just 25 seconds left after an 8-yard completion to Heyward.
Facing a 3rd-and-2, Lewerke threw a picture perfect ball to Davis, who made the catch at the 4-yard line, shook off a defender and walked into the end zone with 19 seconds left, giving the Spartans a 21-17 lead and one of the biggest upset wins in the Big Ten this season.
While Lewerke struggled for much of the game, throwing for 259 yards on 24-of-52 passing and two touchdowns along with one interception, the junior signal caller came through in the clutch on the final drive, going 5-of-8 for 76 yards and the go-ahead touchdown. Davis finished with eight receptions for 100 yards and two touchdowns and Nelson made five catches for 60 yards in the win.
Coming out of halftime trailing 14-7, the Michigan State defense came up big early on, forcing a 3-and-out on the first Penn State drive of the second half and after a Brian Lewerke interception was returned to the Michigan State-35 yard line, the defense again came up with a key stop, forcing a turnover on downs following a Kenny Willekes sack.
The Spartan offense was quiet for much of the first two and a half quarters but would step up after the defense’s stop.
The offense would need just five plays to march 64 yards down the field as Lewerke found Felton Davis III for a 20-yard touchdown to tie the game up at 14-14 with 6:10 left to play in the third quarter.
Penn State would regain the lead with 9:21 left in the fourth quarter on a short field goal from Jake Pinegar, putting the Nittany Lions on top, 17-14.
On the ensuing Michigan State drive, Michigan State would line up for what looked to be a game-tying 40-yard field goal try with under six minutes left to play, but the Spartans’ third trick play attempt of the game narrowly failed, turning the ball back over to Penn State. Lewerke, who is the holder on field goal and extra point attempts, fielded the snap and rolled to his right and lofted the ball downfield toward defensive tackle Raequan Williams, but the ball went off the fingertips of Williams after a Penn State defender came over at the last second to knock the ball away inside the 10-yard line.
One of the reasons behind the fake field goal attempt according to Dantonio was simply that the Spartans, “Came here (Penn State) to win”, needing a victory to stay alive in the Big Ten East.
After a first half where the Michigan State defense allowed two touchdowns and an uncharacteristic amount of rushing yards in the first half, the defense shut down a dynamic Penn State offense in the second half, limiting Penn State to just three points and two field goal attempts after halftime.
The Spartans’ pass defense had been heavily criticized in the first five weeks of the season, but came up big against Penn State star quarterback Trace McSorley, limiting him to just 192 yards and one score through the air.
Following the loss to Northwestern, Michigan State middle linebacker Joe Bachie told reporters that he planned on challenging his teammates to make sure everyone was bought in moving forward this season. After the win over Penn State, Bachie said he saw several of his teammates fully bought in.
“Guys decided to come here and believe in themselves this week,” says Bachie, “and they did (on Saturday).”
Michigan State entered Saturday afternoon with the nation’s No. 1 ranked rushing defense, but the Nittany Lions found plenty of success on the ground in the first half.
With Penn State pinned inside its 10-yard line to begin its second drive of the game, but a 78-yard run by Myles Sanders helped set up a 5-yard touchdown pass from McSorley to K.J. Hamler to put the Nittany Lions on top, 7-0 with 5:03 left in the first quarter.
After the Michigan State offense struggled to find any traction on its first three drives, the Spartans turned to its bag of tricks, hoping to jump-start the offense.
Facing a fourth down and six from Michigan State’s own 36-yard line and the Spartans lined up to punt, starting running back Connor Heyward took a direct snap and ran off the left side down to the Penn State 40-yard line for a gain of 26 yards.
Two plays later, Heyward would take a pitch from Lewerke and throw downfield to Cam Chambers for a gain of 35 yards down to the 1-yard line.
It would take the Spartans four-run plays and a personal foul call against Penn State to find the end zone, but a 1-yard run by La’Darius Jefferson with 13:25 left in the second quarter would tie the game up at 7-7.
The Michigan State rushing attack started to show signs of life on Saturday afternoon, rushing for 123 yards, 60 of which came from Jefferson on the day and a change in scheme may have the Spartan run game moving in the right direction.
Before the game, Spartan Nation learned and reported that the Spartans decided to switch to a zone running scheme rather than the traditional power running scheme that Michigan State has used throughout the Mark Dantonio era. Both Dantonio and Lewerke confirmed the change in the scheme after the game.
Spartan Nation reported last week that those changes may be made going into the Northwestern game a week ago, but the Spartans did not make the change in the scheme until this week.
The Spartan defense would force back-to-back three-and-outs on the next Penn State drives, but Penn State would regain the lead before halftime when Sanders broke off a 48-yard touchdown scamper with 4:33 left in the second quarter to make it 14-7.
Going into Saturday’s game, the Spartan defense had yet to allow a run of 20 yards or longer, but two long runs by Sanders gave provided much of Penn State’s first-half offense.
The Spartans will try to stay alive in the race for the Big Ten East Division next week when Michigan State welcomes in rival Michigan to Spartan Stadium at noon on Saturday afternoon, looking to make it two straight wins over the Wolverines.
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