EAST LANSING, Mich. – Michigan State opened their season Friday night against Utah State at Spartan Stadium. The Spartans, returning 19 of 22 starters, tied for most in the country, went up against an Aggie team with 18 returners in a match-up characterized by experience. A strong rush defense from Michigan State against a no-huddle offense from Utah State leveled the playing field many thought always belonged to the Spartans.
Utah State got off to a hot start, taking only seven plays and 75 yards on the opening drive to give them an early 7-0 lead. Aggies’ sophomore quarterback Jordan Love went 4-for-4 passing on 68 yards during the drive and proved early on that he would be a threat to the Spartans’ defense.
Michigan State’s offense looked shaky early on after a sack to quarterback Brian Lewerke on a 3rd-and-4, leaving them to settle on a 49-yard field goal by kicker Matt Coghlin. The Spartans were able to start their next drive in Aggie territory after a turnover on downs, and a 28-yard completion from Lewerke to Felton Davis III brought them inside their opponents’ 10-yard line.
A pass interference call on Utah State brought the ball to the two-yard line and a couple LJ Scott rushes left them just inches from the end zone. The Spartans were forced to settle on another field goal after Lewerke was sacked on another third down and still found themselves trailing.
After a Khari Willis deflection forced Utah State to punt, the Spartans lost possession just a few plays later after a sack on Lewerke resulted in a fumble recovered by the Aggies. The tide began to change just 90 seconds of game time later as Willis came up with an interception and returned it to Utah State’s 42-yard line.
“I credit up-front, we had great pressure and it kind of came right to me,” Willis said.
A 32-yard completion from Lewerke to Scott set Michigan State up for their first touchdown of the season, an 8-yard pass caught by sophomore Cody White, to give the Spartans a 13-7 lead.
Utah State came alive after their opposition’s touchdown with Love leading them downfield on the following drive 72 yards that was capped off by a two-yard rushing touchdown by junior Darwin Thompson. Trailing again 14-13, the Spartans responded with another touchdown, this time from Lewerke to Davis who was able to make the catch while falling backwards and dragging his heel to stay in-bounds, bringing the score heading into halftime to 20-14.
The second half began with the Spartans ready to continue the run they ended the first half with. An 81-yard drive ended with a 17-yard rushing touchdown by sophomore Connor Heyward to give Michigan State the largest lead of the game, 27-14. A heavy-pressure defense, highlighted by junior defensive end Kenny Willekes with a pass rush and the Spartans’ first sack of the season, limited Utah State to just a field goal.
On the ensuing Spartan drive, a Lewerke pass was picked off by Utah State safety Gaje Ferguson, who returned the interception 40 yards to the end zone, bringing the Aggies within three points before the end of the third quarter, 27-24.
Michigan State was on the board first in the fourth quarter with a 24-yard field goal by Coghlin after a Cody White touchdown reception was called back due to an illegal formation penalty. Utah State took their time with the next drive, taking 5:18 off the game clock as they pushed upfield until Thompson ran in his second touchdown of the night to make it 31-30, Utah State’s first lead since 10:49 of the second quarter.
The Spartan offense took over with 5:05 left in the game and a one-point deficit. Davis came up big for Michigan State again as he laid out to make a 32-yard reception that brought the Spartans right near the red zone. After a would-be touchdown from Scott was called back for a holding penalty, an option run saw Lewerke pitch it to an open Heyward, who ran 13 yards to the end zone for his second touchdown of the night. Lewerke completed the 2-point conversion to Davis to make the lead seven points, 38-31.
Heyward had just five carries but ended up with 42 yards and two touchdowns – a big opening performance for
Lewerke ended the day 23-of-33 for 287 yards through the air, finishing with two touchdowns and a lone interception, adding 31 yards on the ground. Darrell Stewart Jr. was Lewerke’s favorite target on the night, catching seven passes for 55 yards.
With two minutes remaining in the game, Utah State attempted their last push towards the end zone. On a 3rd-and-1 at midfield, linebacker Joe Bachie deflected a pass from Love high into the air before completing the interception to seal the game for Michigan State, 38-31.
“They brought, a lot of times, more people than we could block, just number-wise, so there were a lot of times I had to get the ball out quick,” Lewerke said. “I thought the O-line did a good job today.”
The Spartans start their season 1-0 and will travel to Tempe, Ariz. next weekend to face Herm Edwards and Arizona State. Kickoff is scheduled for 10:45 p.m. EST and the game will be televised on ESPN.