Flip the script. That was the one thing on Michigan State’s (9-3 overall, 7-2 B1G) mind during their 40-7 win over Rutgers (4-8, 3-6), putting 2016’s 3-9 campaign to bed.
“It’s rewarding to flip it right now,” MSU coach Mark Dantonio said Tuesday at his weekly press conference. “We flipped 3-8 to 8-3. It’s rewarding to see that…to see there’s something that all your hard work comes to fruition and all the things you talk about and go through as a group, you see that sort of move forward. I think that’s exciting for any program at any point in time.”
The Spartans’ opening possession was a drive of firsts. Lead receiver Felton Davis III nabbed his first catch in three weeks, wideout Laress Nelson received his first carry of the year and fourth-string running back Connor Heyward grabbed his first touchdown of his career. The Spartans led 7-0 5:11 into the game.
The first Rutgers play was a fumble forced by Demetrius Cooper and recovered by Andrew Dowell within the Scarlet Knights’ 10-yard line. This was the first of three turnovers for the Scarlet Knights.
It was first and goal for the Spartans. But, this would be the start an array of miscues from the Spartans. First, they failed to take advantage of extraordinary field position and were held to a 26-yard field goal from Matt Coghlin. The same would happen next possession.
Down 13-0, Johnathan Lewis replaced Giovanni Rescigno under center for the Scarlet Knights. Two Spartan penalties handed Lewis and company 25 yards. Then, Lewis spotted blown coverage, finding a wide-open Raheem Blackshear for a 42-yard touchdown. Penalties continued to haunt the Spartans, who finished the contest with nine flags for 80 yards.
With 10:02 remaining in the second quarter, the Spartans received the ball at midfield, but only pushed the ball to the 28-yard line where Coghlin hit his third straight field goal. This one was from 46 yards out to extend the Spartan lead 16-7.
One drive later, on Rutgers’ 29-yard line, Michigan State went for a little trickery, calling for a Lewerke lateral to Cody White, who found Matt Sokol for a touchdown.
But, another penalty took the six points back off the board.
A clipping penalty negated the score and pushed the Spartans out of field goal range. At the end of the half, the Spartans held their nine-point lead, 16-7, but mistakes prevented a larger lead.
The third quarter brought the same as the first two. Lewerke led the opening drive of the third quarter once again into Rutgers territory, but a false start forced a third-and-nine instead of a third-and-four, and MSU came up short. Coghlin once again trotted on the field and connected from 32 yards out, extending the lead to 12.
Penalties and poor red zone offense hurt the Spartans, but against the 4-8 Scarlet Knights, it didn’t matter. And by the fourth quarter, the Spartans would regain their balance. The Scarlet Knights lost all inspiration in their final game of the year, and the Spartans poured it on.
All game long, the Spartans moved the ball with ease. Lewerke finished 21-for-31 for 222 yards, plus 56 yards on the ground. MSU dominated the total yards battle, 431-112. The Spartan defense also had their way — not allowing a third down conversion. Time of possession heavily favored the Spartans as well, 47:50-12:10.
Michigan State finishes second in the Big Ten East, while Rutgers finishes fifth. The Scarlet Knights season is over, but the Spartans will have a few weeks to prepare for a bowl game. Bowl selections are announced on Dec. 3.