Spartans Dominant in Holiday Bowl, 42-17

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    Holiday Bowl
    December 28, 2017. Brian Lewerke #14 of the Michigan State Spartans eludes Dylan Hanser #33 of the Washington State Cougars on a run play during the second half of the SDCCU Holiday Bowl at SDCCU Stadium on December 28, 2017 in San Diego, California. (Photo by Sean M. Haffey/Getty Images)
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    Brian Lewerke threw for 213 yards and added 73 on the ground as Michigan State rolled to a 42-17 win over the undermanned Washington State Cougars in the San Diego County Credit Union Holiday Bowl. The Spartans were dominant in the second and third quarters, at one point scoring on five successive drives. While Washington State’s star quarterback Luke Falk unexpectedly missed the game due to a left wrist injury, it is doubtful that it would have made much difference. The Spartans were simply too much on this beautiful night in San Diego.

    Spartans Dominant in Holiday Bowl 

    Off Pace to Begin Game

    While the memory was eventually erased, the Spartans were not crisp to start the game. Lewerke missed his first four throws, including a big fourth-down drop by eventual star Felton Davis III. While LJ Scott was running with purpose, the offensive line had difficulty opening up holes for him up the middle, as the Cougars did an admirable job with their run fills in the absence of All-American Hercules Mata’afa, who missed the first half due to a targeting penalty.

    Defensively, the Spartans looked slightly slow to begin the game. Falk’s backup Tyler Hilinksi was able to effectively throw to hitch-corner concepts, and the Cougars moved the ball effectively. It was only when the Cougars had already entered scoring territory when the Spartans finally bowed up. WSU kicker Erik Powell drilled a 45-yard kick to give the Cougars a 3-0 lead.

    Tide Turns in Momentous Second Quarter

    It was a nine-minute, 16-play drive which spanned the first and second quarters that finally got the Spartans on the board. Taking over at their own 19, the Spartans used a balance of runs and passes to move the ball. Lewerke created with his legs, running to convert both a third and then an eventual short fourth down during the drive. It looked as though the Cougars would stop the drive at the 15, when Lewerke scrambled, circled, and let loose a rain drop into the hands of Cody White in the back of the end zone on a 3rd-and-9 to give the Spartans a 7-3 lead.

    The Spartans defensive backfield was more up to the challenge on the succeeding drive, forcing a three-and-out. Lewerke wasted no time capitalizing on the momentum. After a successful option keeper to convert a 3rd-and-6, Dave Werner came up with a brilliant call. The Spartans faked the same play to the opposite side, drawing the free safety in. Lewerke dropped away from the option run and lofted a 49-yard throw to a wide-open Felton Davis III, stretching the lead to 14-3.

    Once again the Spartans allowed only short completions on WSU’s next possession, forcing another three-and-out. Giving the ball back to a red-hot Spartan offense could not have been WSU’s plan. Lewerke found three different receivers on the next drive, including Davis for a 27-yarder down the sideline. Eventually, LJ Scott punched it in against the undersized Cougars defensive front to really open the game up. The Spartans led 21-3 as the teams headed into the locker room, and more importantly, had the confidence that they could continue the rout in the second half.

    A Scare and a Prayer

    Michigan State received the second half kickoff, and left right off where they ended the first half. They faced a 3rd-and-7 from the WSU 10 late in the drive. Similar to the first touchdown, Lewerke circled to the left side of the field while keeping his eyes on his receivers. He threw, and, despite a deflection, Cody White came sliding underneath the ball in the end zone for another score.

    The battle was uphill for Washington State, as a problem with the snap resulted in Michigan State recovering the ball at the Cougar 27-yard line. Lewerke used his legs effectively on the ensuing drive, however, he got a huge hit from Sean Harper Jr. that temporarily knocked him out of the game. Spartan Nation held their collective breath, as it would have been a huge shame to see him sustain a serious injury while nursing that kind of lead. It was a frankly unnecessary play, both by Werner to call it, and Lewerke to execute it so physically.

    The only positive part about Lewerke’s bell ringing was that fifth-year senior Damion Terry got a chance to play in the Holiday Bowl. He took his second snap six yards on an option keeper into the end zone to take a 35-3 lead. It is here that we should note just how good of a program guy Terry has been. He was once looked at as the favorite to win the starting job from Connor Cook, but a combination of injuries and poor performance have relegated him to career backup. He could have pouted, or  whined to the media. Terry could have transferred. Instead, he stuck it out, and for him to get his moment in the sun is a truly special moment.

    The Icing on the Cake

    A frustrated Washington State team scored two touchdowns to cut it to 35-17, and they did attempt an onside kick with 8:26 remaining. It was recovered, however, by Joe Bachie, the unquestioned leader of the Spartan defense. A few plays later LJ Scott was carrying Cougar defenders into the end zone to make it 42-17, which was of course the final score.

    The win was really so meaningful for this prideful team. Of course sending the seniors out right is always a big deal, but there were other milestones in this game. To notch a tenth win after the 3-9 disaster of a year ago has to feel sweet. For the program as a whole, they are now one of only eight teams in FBS to have six 10-win seasons in the past eight years. As for the coach, this was Mark Dantonio’s 100th win in charge in East Lansing.

    Spartan fans unfurled a banner during the game featuring Dantonio’s famous quote from after the 2007 loss to Michigan: “it’s not over, it’s never over. It’s just getting started.” For the future, there is much to look forward to. This 10-win team has 77 underclassmen, and they got an additional dose of good news postgame when LJ Scott told Fox Sport’s Jenny Taft that he will be forgoing the NFL draft process and returning to East Lansing for his senior season.

    Spare a thought for the depleted Cougars, who had a really good season, including knocking off then-unbeaten USC in September. Unfortunately for Washington State, they ran into a determined Spartans team on this night. It’s just getting started.

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