EAST LANSING, Mich. — Eager to put their abysmal 3-9 2016 season in the rear view, the Michigan State Spartans opened up their 2017 campaign with a clean slate and an appreciable win over Bowling Green, 35-10, improving to 1-0 on the season.
“I thought our guys played extremely hard today,” coach Mark Dantonio said. “We were dominant in terms of what we needed to do today.”
After seeing a huge dropoff from Connor Cook at the quarterback position last season with Tyler O’Connor, the keys to the offense have been handed to sophomore quarterback Brian Lewerke. Lewerke finished the game 22-for-33 for 250 yards and three touchdowns. Lewerke was also the Spartans’ leading rusher with 70 yards on the ground, 22 of those coming from his longest scramble of the day.
Dantonio spoke confidently about his starting quarterback, “His ability to scramble gives us another dimension and weapon to [do] what we want to do on offense.”
In the opening drive, Lewerke underthrew Felton Davis for what looked like a sure touchdown, showing signs early of his youth. Lewerke then took the offense down the field to the goal line, where junior tailback LJ Scott continued his turnover woes and coughed up the ball on the 1-yard line — a turnover eerily similar to the fumble Scott gave up for the scoop-and-score against Wisconsin last season.
The Falcons started the following drive on their own 34-yard line, taking several deep shots at the young and inexperienced Spartan secondary. Former walk-ons and starting defensive ends Dillon Alexander and Kenny Willekes showed early flashes of playmaking abilities coming off the edge, making some big plays in open space. After holding Bowling Green to just a field goal, the Spartans trailed the Falcons 3-0 through one quarter.
The ensuing drive for the Lewerke-led Spartans offense went 67 yards in 12 plays in just under seven minutes, with the drive being capped off by a seven-yard Madre London touchdown run. After forcing several Bowling Green punts, the Spartans set themselves up for yet another score before the half, this time by way of a 40-yard catch and run from redshirt freshman wideout Darrell Stewart Jr. to the Falcon four-yard line. Lewerke finished off the drive with a simple pass to a wide open Davis in the endzone, taking a 14-3 lead into the half.
Lewerke overcame a nervous and shaky start to the game by finishing the half 13-for-17 for 130 yards and one touchdown. Stewart Jr. was Lewerke’s favorite target and the Spartans’ sole playmaker in the first half, combining for 105 yards of total offense.
“I thought our receivers were fantastic today,” Lewerke said. “I think he [Stewart] definitely showed what he’ll be able to do for us this season.”
After the Spartan defense forced an opening drive punt, Lewerke took the offense 69 yards in 10 plays to open up the second half with a perfectly thrown back-shoulder fade to Davis, hauling in his second touchdown grab on the day.
Michigan State looked reinvigorated in the second half, smothering the Falcons to just 108 yards of offense in the second half. After scoring just 14 points in the first half, the Spartans poured it on in the second half, scoring 21 points on 192 second half yards. Sophomore linebacker Joe Bachie led the defense with 10 tackles and senior captain Chris Frey added five tackles, including a sack.
“I think Joe played really effectively today,” Dantonio said. “We were great up front in stopping the run.”
The Spartans were nowhere near perfect today — especially with star tailback LJ Scott coughing up two fumbles and rushing for 39 yards on 15 touches — but given the result of last season and the mounting pressure on Dantonio to bounce back, Spartan fans and coaches had to be pleased with what they saw today, specifically from Lewerke and Stewart.
“I think we learned today that we’re pretty resilient,” Dantonio said. “We continued to play hard today and we’ll try to build on the things we did well today.”
Coming off a season with so few wins, Michigan State will take any win they can get. They head into next week’s matchup with a Western Michigan team trying to find their new identity as they deal with life without PJ Fleck. WMU faces USC on Saturday evening.
MSU will face the Fleck-less Broncos at 3:30 p.m. next Saturday in East Lansing. That game can be viewed on the Big Ten Network.