Mark Dantonio’s face seems to naturally look unhappy but it’s safe to say he really was feeling that way when he watched Michigan State give up an opening 75 yard touchdown drive and fail to muster much energy at all on offense in the first few minutes of the season. Luckily his team rallied to grab a few momentum-building plays in the second quarter in order to take a 20-14 lead into the locker room at halftime against a pesky Utah State squad at Spartan Stadium.
Aggies signal-caller Jordan Love certainly came to play on the big stage and seemed to catch the home team’s defense by surprise by using a nice mix of tempo and precision passing over the middle of the field. Evoking a few shades of Chucky Keaton from back in the day for USU given his calm demeanor in a hostile environment, Love finished the first half 14-of-21 for 181 yards and an interception. He was also able to escape pressure with his legs and added another 10 yards and a touchdown on the ground as well.
It was not quite the same performance out of opposite number Brian Lewerke, who many think could turn into one of (if not the) best QB’s in the Big Ten. His numbers seemed good (190 yards, two TDs) but the junior wasn’t quite as crisp with his passing as expected and he also fumbled in a rather bizarre way to avoid a sack. Tailback LJ Scott shouldered most of the load and looked like a workhorse runner in the first half with 12 carries for 36 yards. The senior also contributed in the passing game with some good blocks and two receptions for over 50 yards.
While the Spartans offense did not quite find a rhythm, they did feed off their defense in the second quarter to get a little momentum going. Khari Willis pulled down an interception to turn the momentum defensively midway through the quarter and then Scott promptly pulled in a screen pass and took it to the door step of the goal line on the very next offensive play. Lewerke eventually found Cody White over the middle for the touchdown and that score seemed to give the crowd a bit of a sigh of relief.
Utah State answered right back with a 72 yard drive as the teams traded scores though in a rather back-and-forth second frame that featured three lead changes. The Aggies were in a similar position last season when they hung around with Wisconsin on the road for a half but eventually were blown out after the break.
Could that happen again in East Lansing? The Spartans certainly hope so but it’s pretty clear they’ll need to clear up quite a bit at halftime if that’s to be the case or else we could be in store for our first major upset of the season given the way both sides are playing in this one.
After winning just three games in 2016, Michigan State spent last winter at home dreaming of warmer climates. Thanks to an incredible turnaround during the regular season in 2017, the No. 16 Spartans spent this winter enjoying the warmer climates of San Diego as they thumped No. 18 Washington State 42-17 in the Holiday Bowl.
And things didn’t even seem anywhere as close as that final margin would indicate.
Quarterback Brian Lewerke played a big role in the reason why the game was largely uncompetitive with a performance that could earn him a place on more than a few Heisman Dark Horse lists for 2018. The sophomore had one of the best outings of the season under center and was one point with his passing on nearly every dropback in throwing for 213 yards and three touchdowns. While he may not look like a noted dual-threat at first glance, he also paced the team with his legs for most of the night and wound up with 73 yards rushing.
Tailback L.J. Scott chipped in with 110 on the ground and scored two rushing touchdowns, while Felton Davis (118 yards, one score) and Cody White (two TD’s) helped pace the skill position players in terms of effectiveness.
Though the Cougars did get the offense clicking later in the game, they were behind the chains from the opening kickoff with sophomore Tyler Hilinski making his first career start behind center. Record-setting quarterback Luke Falk was one the sidelines in street clothes for the game but couldn’t make it back in time from a wrist injury he suffered in the Apple Cup.
Hilinski did make several nice throws down the field over the course of the game but was mostly forced to dink-and-dunk all night on his way to 272 yards, an interception and a pair of touchdowns. Several three-and-outs early put his defense in a bind however and a fumble in the third quarter that was converted into another touchdown seemed to be the back-breaker. The loss puts a damper on what was still an overall successful year for the Cougs but adds to the questions about the program going forward with a number of key players gone for 2018 and defensive coordinator Alex Grinch reportedly headed to Ohio State in January.
The same could not be said of the Spartans, which capped a seven-win turnaround this year and have plenty of momentum (and returning starters) as they return to East Lansing for the new year. While we tend to over-inflate bowl victories when it comes to the preseason outlook on some teams, the way that MSU has trended this year bodes well for them in what should be a rough and tumble Big Ten in 2018 that will likely have Mark Dantonio‘s squad right back in the thick of the title race again.
The Tyler Hilinski era is getting started earlier than anybody at No. 18 Washington State wanted and as a result the team trails No. 16 Michigan State 21-3 at halftime of the Holiday Bowl.
The Cougars backup quarterback made his first start on Thursday night in place of record-setting signal-caller Luke Falk, whose career on the Palouse is over after injuring his wrist in the Apple Cup and being unable to recover in time for the team’s bowl appearance. The 6-foot-3 sophomore has made several appearances this season already so he isn’t totally inexperienced running Mike Leach’s Air Raid offense but he didn’t seem to quite live up to the stage with 72 yards passing on 22 attempts as WSU had four three-and-outs in the half.
On the flip side, Spartans starter Brian Lewerke looked like he was the one running a wide-open spread offense instead of the typical look you get from the team. He was sharp throughout the first two quarters and finished with 163 yards and a pair of touchdowns, one of which was a perfect throw to the back of the end zone that was hauled in by Cody White and the other off a terrific fake that left Felton Davis wide open for a 49-yarder.
Washington State is no stranger to having some crazy comebacks this season but they’ll need more out of their new starter if the want to make things happen against a Michigan State squad well on their way to hitting the double-digit win mark once again.