EAST LANSING, Mich. — How has No. 16 Michigan State (6-1, 4-0 Big Ten) been so good at finishing games this season? The question brings a bevy of responses from staff members and players.
Coach Mark Dantonio brings up “grit,” a particularly annoying word because it can’t be tracked down on any box score or pointed out on the field. It only means that the “gritty” team is the one that made the plays it needed to down the stretch.
Quarterback Brian Lewerke ponders the idea but can’t really pin it down. He and his teammates don’t think about it while they’re on the field. They just play the game.
“I think it’s just something you learn,” the sophomore quarterback said after leading a game-winning drive against Indiana last Saturday. “Through the first [Big Ten games], as we’ve gone through all of them, I think we’ve done a great job at finishing. Even despite our youth, I think we’ve learned how to win tight games like that.”
Through their first three games, the Spartans didn’t face any nail-biters. They comfortably beat Bowling Green and Western Michigan before taking a resounding loss against Notre Dame. Then they proceeded to beat Iowa, Michigan, Minnesota and Indiana by no more than 8 points apiece.
|Year||Michigan State’s record in one-possession games|
It defies traditional assumptions of how team development works. If finishing games at the college level is learned, then older teams should be better. But this team is one of the nation’s youngest. Eighteen players on the roster saw the field the last time the Spartans played in the postseason. Only five seniors have seen consistent playing time this season — four if you don’t count linebacker Shane Jones, who missed the Minnesota game with an injury.
When Michigan State’s offense had to come from behind in the fourth quarter for the first time in conference play, the veterans didn’t lead the charge. Freshman wide receivers Hunter Rison and Cody White made many of the big plays, with throws from sophomore Lewerke and help from junior wideout Felton Davis. The only senior to touch the ball on the game-winning drive was center Brian Allen.
“We learned our football team has a tremendous amount of grit, which I think they’ve shown through the season,” said co-offensive coordinator Dave Warner, using that word again. “But yeah, that fourth quarter was pretty severe there to the point where it was like, ‘Oh, we’ve got some problems.’ Guys hung in there and kept believing and made some plays when we needed some plays made, and that’s what makes the difference in good football teams and good football seasons.”
They’ve certainly made the difference between 2016 and 2017. Last year the Spartans had a lead in every game and a second-half lead in most. But that group, a much more experienced squad, finished 3-9 because of its tendency to fade late in games.
Michigan State seems to get stronger as games go on. For that, the Spartans can thank the rigor of their workouts and practices. They often practice in “Baylor tempo,” running 28 to 30 plays in a seven-minute span.
“We practice that the whole year,” linebacker Chris Frey said after the Indiana win. “We practice it during camp, and it’s paying off for us because guys are staying fresh to the third and fourth quarter.”
Ultimately, Michigan State’s struggles to finish in 2016 might be tougher to explain than its success so far this season. The Spartans have traditionally performed well in close games, with their 1-3 record in such games in 2016 matching the worst of the Dantonio tenure ― the other came in in 2007, his first season.
“In all the things, whether it’s schoolwork or paying attention to detail in church when you’re listening to the preacher, or Mom and Dad when they’re scolding you, you’ve got to finish things,” co-defensive coordinator Ron Burton said. “I think it’s just a due process that we must go through and continue to give them that information that life is about how you finish, not necessarily how you start, but who can finish the best.”