Two factors no longer need to be pondered about this edition of Michigan State’s football team:
Competitive character and the quarterback.
Those are the two major reasons why the Spartans, against all odds, are in the driver’s seat of arguably college football’s strongest division, the Big Ten East.
If the Spartans’ win at Ohio State this week, they will be a cinch to be division champions. A third Big Ten title in five years is entirely possible.
After a 3-9 record in 2016, and an early spanking from Notre Dame this year, who would have thought?
The Spartans’ 27-24 victory over defending Big Ten champion Penn State Saturday came after a thunder/rain delay of more than three hours.
The Spartans trailed 14-7 when play was halted early in the second quarter. Yet, MSU responded much better than the Nittany Lions.
And nobody more than QB Brian Lewerke, who threw for 400 yards. He outplayed more-celebrated Penn State signal caller Trace McSorley. With J.T. Barrett and Ohio State stumbling at Iowa, Lewerke has emerged as a bonafide candidate for first-team All-Big Ten QB. He has thrown for 845 yards the last two weeks and is an elusive, extraordinarily fleet runner.
“Really, Lewerke was on from the beginning,” MSU coach Mark Dantonio said of the sophomore. “He was throwing darts, you could say.
“We played with a lot of emotion and a lot of energy.”
The Spartans’ defense might have cost star Penn State running back Saquon Barkley the Heisman Trophy. He was held to just 63 yards rushing, only 33 receiving and didn’t deliver his typical big play.
Such weather stoppages are annoying. This was a huge game for both programs and the Big Ten - perhaps with national implications. There was a relatively small crowd there to see it decided when MSU’s Matt Coughlin nailed a 34-yard field goal as time ran out, but it was loud.
The delay was necessary because of safety concerns, and it did bring out a human element. It tested the will of both programs.
Michigan State’s recent tradition, with last season being the exception, is to excel under such circumstances. Remember the victory at Ohio State, in horrible weather and without standing QB Connor Cook during 2015? Recall the Michigan win in Ann Arbor during a driving rainstorm last month?
There was plenty of buzz about the beatdown Iowa was administering on Ohio State.
Spartans’ linebackers Chris Frey and Joe Bachie both said they heard about it on the field from none other than Barkley.
It will be interesting to see what it means for the Spartans this week. You’d think Buckeyes’ coach Urban Meyer would have his team more ready than ever after such an indignity, and considering how MSU destroyed Ohio State’s national title dreams on their last visit to Columbus.
But selling this version of the Spartans short is a losing proposition.
Don’t believe it? Just ask Michigan and Penn State.
“We have a young football team that is very energetic and getting very sure of themselves,” Dantonio said.
“It’s a confidence thing,” Lewerke said. “We just believe in ourselves.”
The rest of the college football world is starting to, as well.