BLOOMINGTON, Ind. –– After sitting idly for the past 14 days, Michigan State got back to the field Saturday night for its Big Ten season opener. With concerns mountingafter the Spartans’ sloppy first two games, they showed significant strides in Week 4, silencing a surging Indiana group 35-21.
“I thought we had a great focus,” head coach Mark Dantonio said of his team’s win. “We’re 2-1, and that’s the bottom line that we’re 2-1 at the end of the day.”
MSU was brilliant starting the game, finding the endzone on back-to-back drives midway through the opening frame. First it was the speedy true freshman Jalen Nailor, hauling in a 16-yard pass from quarterback Brian Lewerke. That score was part of an eight-play, 60-yard scoring drive.
“I can’t even put it into words,” Nailor said after scoring his first career touchdown. “I was just happy to have it in my hands and be able to score.”
Right after Josh Butler got flagged with a pass interference call, Shakur Brown stepped in for Butler and took a 69-yard pick-six the other way. The play was a huge momentum shifter in the early stages, taking away the Hoosiers’ chance to tie it up.
The Spartans’ defense was phenomenal tonight, limiting the Hoosiers to 301 total yards, with a good chunk of that coming in the Hoosiers’ frantic comeback effort. Emerging true freshman Stevie Scott, who entered the night second in the league with 388 rushing yards, was held to a measly 18 yards on 11 carries.
“We knew we had to stop the run. That’s something we pride ourselves on so I think we did a good job on that and it feels good to get the win,” junior linebacker Joe Bachie said.
Sophomore quarterback Peyton Ramsey was kept in check for most of the night in the passing game. Coming into the game, Ramsey led the league in completion percentage (74 percent) and, aside from one big 65-yard Whop Philyor touchdown strike, was limited to 272 yards with 2 touchdowns and two turnovers.
It was a dominant night for the Spartans’ defensive front, especially junior defensive end Kenny Willekes. Willekes was a force, leading the team in tackles on the night with nine, including a sack, two tackles for loss and a quarterback hurry. The defense logged four sacks, a season high, with Brandon Bouyer-Randle, Raequan Williams and Andrew Dowell each dragging Ramsey down.
The offense showed some improvements, but also much of the same from its struggles in the first two games. Lewerke finished the night 14-for-25 for 213 yards, two touchdowns and two interceptions, including one costly pick which led to a 35-yard Justus Logan field goal 17 seconds into the fourth quarter.
“He’s [Lewerke] sometimes just got to let the ball go and throw it away,” Dantonio said, speaking to Lewerke’s forced turnovers. “He’s trying to make a play but at times you need to take care of the football a little bit better.”
Receivers Felton Davis and Cody White had great nights, both up over 70 yards receiving, but it was the freshman Nailor who really made his presence known. He tallied 95 all-purpose yards, including taking a 75-yard end-around to the house after Indiana cut the deficit to seven with under four minutes left in the game.
With LJ Scott unable to go, the ground game struggled mightily again aside from the Nailor TD, mustering 131 yards on the night. True freshman La’Darius Jefferson and sophomore Connor Heyward split the bulk of the carries, but neither of them were able to bust any big runs with almost no push from the offensive line.
“We’ve got good running backs,” Dantonio said about his running back stable. “Le’Darius had one fumble but he had some nice runs and is a physical runner. We just gotta keep going.”
The Hoosiers tried overcoming the late-game damage, but it was sophomore linebacker Antjuan Simmons who put the game on ice, picking off Ramsey to squash IU’s valiant comeback.
With the win, the Spartans improve to 2-1 and 1-0 in the conference. MSU returns to East Lansing next weekend to finish off its non-conference slate with Central Michigan before hosting Northwestern the following weekend for Homecoming.