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Mark Dantonio says Brian Lewerke was ‘outstanding,’ excited by team handling adversity and rallying to win over Indiana, 40-31, Sept. 28, 2019.
Chris Solari, Detroit Free Press

EAST LANSING — The last time coach Mark Dantonio had a decision to make at the end of the game, he played it safe, opted for a field goal instead of a shot to the end zone, and took too long to make the decision. The uncertainty cost him in a brutal loss to Arizona State

The Michigan State football coach faced another critical late-game decision Saturday evening at Spartan Stadium.  

This time, he knew what he wanted to do immediately, even if it required showing faith in his struggling junior placekicker, Matt Coghlin, who’d missed a field goal in the first quarter against Indiana, and who generally has been out of sorts this season. 

“It was the right thing to do,” said Dantonio. “We didn’t want to score with allowing any time left on the clock.” 

It paid off.

MSU beat Indiana, 40-31. A loss and the Big Ten East race was likely over for the Spartans. The questions would not have been for Dantonio — his MSU team faces trips to Ohio State and Wisconsin the next two weeks.

A 3-2 record with the possibility of losing the next two games would’ve created an unforgiving storyline. 

His decisiveness — a trait that has helped him build MSU’s program — made sure that didn’t happen. And when the play clock ran down to a few seconds when the Spartans had a first-and-goal at the 1 with the score tied at 31 and 1:03 left in the game, he didn’t hesitate to call a timeout to make sure everyone understood the strategy:

Kill the clock. Let the beleaguered kicker win the game, don’t try to rely on the defense.

“Not with the way (the Hoosiers had) been throwing the ball down the field,” said Dantonio.

Coghlin did his job.   

MSU grades: Offense executes smart gameplan, special teams comes up big

Updated: 2019 Big Ten football standings

What that will do for his confidence later in the season is hard to say. But last year’s all-Big Ten kicker is a critical part to this team’s goals. 

MSU gets nowhere good without him.

“Had complete faith in our snapper and our holder and in (Coghlin),” said Dantonio.    

Good thing, too, because a minute earlier, the Hoosiers had gone 78 yards to tie the game. In fact, Indiana had exposed MSU’s defense all afternoon, rather shockingly.

The Spartans were outschemed everywhere and outmuscled on the edge of the field, as the Hoosiers’ beefy, rangy receivers flicked aside their cornerbacks like gnats. When they weren’t blocking for bubble screens, they were leaping over the top to haul in quarterback Michael Penix Jr.’s darts.

Penix Jr., a redshirt freshman, who’d missed the previous two games with injury, threw for 286 yards. He orchestrated a quick-hitting attack built on those screens, out-routes, and quick hitches designed to loosen up MSU’s defense.

Five yards here. Seven yards here. Ten yards here. 

MSU’s defensive players looked stunned. At least until the fourth quarter, when they forced consecutive three-and-outs to help the Spartans retake the lead.

“Sometimes it seemed like they knew where the blitzes were coming from,” said defensive tackle Mike Panasiuk. 

On top of anticipating what MSU was doing, Indiana’s alignments caused trouble.

“They do a lot of unbalanced formations,” said safety David Dowell. “Something we don’t see a lot of.”

Dowell and the rest of the defense believe they can recalibrate. That the holes in their attack can be filled.    

What helps is that as worrisome as the defensive performance was, the offense keeps getting better.

Yeah, it’s relative. And, yeah, the 40 points came against Indiana — MSU’s final touchdown was a fumble recovery in the end zone at the end of the game. 

Yet quarterback Brian Lewerke looked as good as he ever has. His decision making in run-pass options led to critical first downs. His deep balls were on target. 

He used his legs to extend plays, throw on the run and run for key yardage. 

“Great performance,” said Dantonio.

It sure was.

Analysis: Brian Lewerke helps MSU offense save defense; brutal stretch awaits

On MSU’s final drive to set up the winning field goal, Lewerke ran to his left, threw across his body and feathered in a teardrop to a streaking Darrell Stewart Jr. for 44 yards. 

On the next play, Lewerke took the snap, took off, cut back, and raced 30 yards before getting tackled at the 1-yard line.  

That set up Dantonio’s decision. 

Try to score and ask his defense to win the game? Or take a knee, force Indiana to use its last timeout, and let the clock run down to a few seconds before asking a shaken field goal kicker to win the game instead? 

Dantonio chose the latter.  

Was it a gamble? No, not under normal circumstances. But when a kicker is struggling any distance can be dicey, and in that moment calling for the touchdown attempt might have been the surer way to grab the lead.

Again, Dantonio didn’t waver, a quality that’s helped him to a lot of wins.

After the game, Tom Izzo met him at midfield and talked about him being the winningest football coach in school history.  

Dantonio got there by believing in his system, and his defense, yes. But also by taking chances. A chance he didn’t take three weeks ago on a Saturday night against Arizona State. 

But a chance he took this past Saturday night. 

He’s still here. So are the Spartans.

Ohio State is next. 

Watch: Michigan State’s tribute video to Mark Dantonio, narrated by Tom Izzo

Contact Shawn Windsor: 313-222-6487 or swindsor@freepress.com. Follow him on Twitter @shawnwindsor.

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Breaking down Michigan State’s performance in its 40-31 win over Indiana at Spartan Stadium, Sept. 28, 2019.
Chris Solari, Shawn Windsor and Graham Couch, Detroit Free Press