Spartans sacrifice style for efficiency in Senior Day victory

EAST LANSING, Mich. — In a wintry mix that kept a number of fans away from Spartan Stadium, Michigan State won their final home game of 2017 over a Maryland team that was still fighting for bowl eligibility. The Spartans rode a previously-unpredictable rushing attack to victory over the Terrapins by a final score of 17-7.

“Very, very proud of our football team,” head coach Mark Dantonio said following the game. “Embraced the weather, got a big win, scratched it out.”

Junior running back LJ Scott followed impressive blocks from the Spartan offensive line to the tune of 147 yards, his second game of the season with more than 100 yards rushing. This game was not as impressive in the open field as Scott was against the Gophers, but with both teams unable to catch passes in the poor conditions, the offensive gameplan for the Spartans was simple: run the ball right at the Maryland defense.

“Our guys up front did a great job blocking,” co-offensive coordinator Dave Warner said postgame. “LJ and the backs ran hard, defense played a great game, put us in great situations.”

Scott was impressive on MSU’s opening drive, an 11-play, 69-yard series that ended with a 2-yard plunge. It was Scott’s sixth rushing touchdown of the year, and it epitomized most of the Spartan offense on the day. Out of the 291 yards of total offense on the evening, 271 of it came on the ground.

Michigan State’s defense was able to neutralize Maryland’s rushing game for the most part. The Terrapins featured two solid running backs in Ty Johnson and Lorenzo Harrison III, but both backs were held just below their season average in yards per carry, with Harrison finding more success. The two combined for just 85 yards on the ground, a far cry from the Spartans’ game against Ohio State last week.

“I love that kind of weather,” defensive end Kenny Willekes said. “The rain, the snow, the wind, we call that ‘Spartan Dawg’ defense.”

Even with Lewerke’s struggles with throwing the ball, the Arizona-native quarterback was unaffected by the 24-degree wind chill on his 25-yard touchdown run to start the second quarter. On an option run, Lewerke was able to slip by Jermaine Carter Jr. on the left side of the offensive line to run untouched to the end zone for his fourth rushing touchdown of the season. Despite finishing the day with only two completed passes, Lewerke was happy to let his running backs do the work.

“That was my first snow game I’ve ever played in,” Lewerke said. “It wasn’t easy to throw the ball, as my stats showed, but we ran the ball really well.”

Even after Maryland changed quarterbacks for a drive in the second half, the MSU defense held strong even without forcing turnovers. Maryland punted on each of their first-half drives outside of a crazy play from UMD quarterback Max Bortenschlager, whose attempt to throw on a third-down play in the second quarter was fumbled into the hands of Brandon Randle at Maryland’s 18-yard line.

The only reason that drive ended up scoreless was a Gerald Holmes fumble near the Maryland goal line. Fumbles are the one thing that have never really been ironed out of MSU’s play in 2017, as Holmes’s turnover was MSU’s twelfth lost fumble of the year.

Holmes was impressive after halftime, featuring as the main rusher on an 11-play, 49-yard drive that ended with a Matt Coghlin 27-yard field goal to up the Spartans’ lead to 17-0 in the third quarter. Fullbacks Collin Lucas and Joe Palange had their best performances of the year to lead Scott and Holmes, as Holmes ended the game with 64 yards on the ground, his highest total of the year.

Once snow started falling in the second quarter, the game was reduced to run after run from both sides, and when Maryland did try to throw, Bortenschlager struggled for accuracy the same way Lewerke did. Bortenschlager and the Terrapins didn’t even attempt a pass in the third quarter, but they were accurate on a fourth-quarter drive that ended in a four-yard touchdown run from Harrison.

This game was never really in reach for the Terps after Lewerke’s touchdown to open the second quarter, and while it wasn’t necessarily pretty, MSU wasn’t particularly interested in style points.

“It was tough out there,” Dantonio said. “The environment was tough, the weather was difficult.”

Michigan State moves to 8-3 with the win, and finishes their home slate with a record of 5-1 after going 2-5 at Spartan Stadium last year. The Spartans will conclude their 2017 regular season at Rutgers next weekend, as they will face a 4-7 Scarlet Knights team reeling from a 41-0 loss to Indiana. A time and TV network for that game is to be determined.