NEW YORK — As always with the last game of the season, there is a change of the seas. The seniors say farewell while the younger players usher in a new era, and a new era it could be for Michigan State.
The team sends off a three-year starting quarterback, and a pack of defensive players. A lot of holes will have to be filled, and the seniors made that very clear with their impact in the New Era Pinstripe Bowl. At the same time, the young guys proved they are ready to take on bigger roles.
Seniors curtain call
Michigan State got a much needed spark from the seniors, who played in their final game. In a bizarre sequence, in the first quarter, a pass from Jamie Newman was tipped by Jacub Panasiuk, then bounced off a Wake Forest helmet, and eventually was found by the hands of senior defensive lineman, Mike Panasiuk.
He ensued to run to the nearest pylon like a running back, and dove into the end zone for the touchdown. Fellow defensive linemen, Kenny Willekes, gave a shout out to Panasiuk.
“That’s pretty damn cool to score a touchdown at Yankee Stadium,” Willekes said.
It was Michigan State’s first touchdown of the game and helped spark the offense, including senior quarterback Brian Lewerke.
Lewerke, a little inconsistent to start the day, found his composure in the second half. He went 26-for-37 on passes and found Trenton Gillison on a 64-yard pass, the longest of Lewerke’s career. That set up Lewerke to call his own number in his final game, and he rushed for an 8-yard touchdown.
“It’s honestly really cool for me and my teammates to go out with a win,” Lewerke said.
Finally, Tyriq Thompson has helped anchor the linebacker group throughout the season. He finished with eight total tackles, good for fourth most on the Michigan State defense.
“Just can’t say enough about our football team, and our seniors. They stayed together,” Michigan State Head Coach Mark Dantonio said.
Young talent to take the stage
While Thompson has anchored the middle of the defense, both Antjuan Simmons, a junior, and Noah Harvey, a sophomore, stepped up at the linebacker position this season and showed great promise against Wake Forest. Simmons, who announced after the game that he is returning for his senior season, finished with nine total tackles, second on the team behind Harvey, who finished with 14 total tackles.
Redshirt freshman running back Elijah Collins ran his way to a starting position and number one running back earlier this season. While he had better games, his potential was put on display in New York City. His longest run of the night was of 31 yards, and there were a few others where Collins was able to make several players miss.
Collins displayed his speed on one run when he ran past several defenders eventually dancing out of the sideline. Collins alongside Anthony Williams will have large roles as two young running backs, anchoring an offense losing it’s starting quarterback of three years.
The new quarterback will have a few reliable returners to throw to, that put on great displays under the lights at Yankee Stadium. Threewo wideouts in Jalen Nailor, Cody White and Trenton Gillison showed what they can do through the air.
White, a junior, finished as the leading receiver with eight catches on eight targets, for 97 yards and a touchdown. Nailor, a sophomore, caught five passes for 60 yards.
Nailor also will be an important part in the kick and punt return game , come next season.
Finally, Gillison, a redshirt freshman, had four catches for 88 yards, including the 64-yard pass from Lewerke.
That’s not to say that young players still don’t make mistakes. Gillison caught a shovel pass from Lewerke in scoring range, and fumbled the ball at the six yard line. This gave Wake Forest the ball back down six in the fourth quarter.
“Elijah Collins has a big day, big runs. Brian Lewerke has a huge day. Cody White has a big day, huge catches at the end of the game there,” Dantonio said.
The future played well in the Pinstripe Bowl. It was a good all-around showing, but will need improvement in the off-season to try and compete with the top teams of the Big Ten.
“During that touchdown I guess I was kind of by myself. But just being in New York, spending time with these guys, seniors, young guys and my brother. It’s really a true blessing,” Mike Panasiuk said.