Spartans send seniors out on top, flash 2018 potential

SAN DIEGO — What was expected to be a close game, maybe even a defensive battle, turned into a blowout — No. 16 Michigan State defeating No. 18 Washington State, 42-17, in the 40th Holiday Bowl.

SDCCU Stadium was host to a second Big Ten vs. Pac-12 match-up in California in as many days, with Purdue and MSU both coming out on top. Michigan State’s win, though, gives the Spartans their 10th win in a bounce-back season following the 3-9 campaign in 2016.

Seniors shine in final game

Linebacker Chris Frey led all defensive players with six tackles – four solo – on his way to becoming Holiday Bowl MVP alongside sophomore quarterback Brian Lewerke. The MSU linebacking core, led by Frey, contained the WSU running backs — James Williams getting the majority of the playing time — to 14 rushing yards on three carries and 92 receiving yards on 14 catches. Frey will be signing with an agent and heading to Florida to train for the NFL.

Center Brian Allen was a force up the middle for the MSU offensive line, alongside freshman guard Kevin Jarvis, the two created enough space for running back LJ Scott to break free, eventually totaling 228 team rushing yards and three touchdowns on the ground.

Even after junior guard David Beedle went down with injury early in the first half, Allen continued the push. Having been a stalwart on the offensive line, Allen’s presence will be missed, but brother and redshirt freshman Matt Allen should compete for the position opening. Brian is headed out to Arizona to begin training for the NFL in hopes of continuing his football career.

The third starting senior on this year’s team, fifth-year defensive end Demetrius Cooper finished the Holiday Bowl with four tackles and was officially credited for one quarterback hurry. After some offseason questions, Cooper reasserted himself as a starter in the Spartan defensive line. There is no word yet on what Cooper is planning to do post-MSU.

Fifth-year senior backup quarterback Damion Terry also got some unexpected playing time in what turned into a blowout. But the score was not the reason for Terry’s entrance, replacing the momentarily injured Brian Lewerke. Terry not only received playing time, but found himself in the end zone on a six-yard option run. It is also not yet confirmed on what Terry’s plans are after this season.

Gerald Holmes, fifth-year senior running back, was able to enter the game as well, rushing six times for two yards. Maybe the least glamorous statline of the four other seniors, but Holmes made himself a key piece of the Spartan turnaround by doing just that — being a leader, regardless of snaps. Holmes, like Cooper and Terry, has not confirmed his plans after leaving MSU.

Young offense gives glimpse of potential

It’s never easy to project a college football team’s possible success a year away, but MSU will find themselves returning 19 of 22 starters, 10 on offense and nine on defense. And after ending the season on such a high note, there is bound to be some recency bias.

With all of that being said, Brian Lewerke and the Spartan offense gave the nation a taste of what could be: 21 points and 206 total yards in the second quarter against a defense that allowed an average of 313 yards per game. Touchdowns on five straight possessions. 10-for-15 on third-down conversions against one of the country’s best third-down defenses.

It’s tough to project a metaphorical floor for the team going into 2018, especially considering MSU’s progression from 3-9 to 10-3. Some simple math would show that it is impossible to win seven more games than this season, but another offseason for Lewerke and the young offense should improve their consistency. For as impressive as the sophomore quarterback looked at times, Lewerke still had four games under 150 passing yards. Five games under 100 total rushing yards as a team. And six games with multiple turnovers.

“I am excited,” MSU coach Mark Dantonio said. “I think we have a good football team coming back. I think we have an outstanding recruiting class coming. So, I think we will have guys that can help in that area on this football team. I think we’re hungry. I think we’re humble. We will work hard and believe in each other…belief is such a big part of it. We have confidence in each other.”

“It’s not about me, it’s about us.”

The quote from sophomore basketball player Miles Bridges echoes throughout the Michigan State campus, whether by fans or now by junior running back LJ Scott. Scott announced after the Holiday Bowl he would return to MSU to finish his collegiate career, instead of going to the NFL Draft.

What could’ve been Scott’s final statline as a Spartan ended with 110 rushing yards on 18 carries, two touchdowns and 26 receiving yards on two catches. The performance tied his best game of the season through the air and his third best game of the season on the ground. It was just the third game in which he got into the end zone multiple times.

Instead, he has elected to return to MSU and join another junior, wide receiver Felton Davis, in a continually growing offense. Scott will look to add to his 2,591 career rushing yards, 898 of those coming in 12 games this season. Davis, also electing to return for his senior year, had a career year scoring nine touchdowns and totaling 776 yards on 55 catches.

The two current juniors will lead an armory of weapons for Lewerke including Cody White, Darrell Stewart, Madre London, and company.

What’s next

For the Spartans that are not graduated or training for the NFL Draft, it’s back to the grind. The team will have some time off before returning to their weekly schedules, but from all accounts of the underclassmen post-Holiday Bowl, the hunger to improve remains.

Dantonio secured 20 recruits in the first-ever early signing period, but fans will await any more commits on National Signing Day, Wednesday, Feb. 7. The next time the team will be publicly seen playing will be the annual Green and White game in the spring of 2018, with the date and time to be determined.