Plenty of ugliness, a little help and more guts than can be measured – that’s what it took for the Michigan State Spartans to pull the upset over Penn State in Happy Valley.
Fresh off of a home loss, the Spartans entered the game a double-digit underdog the the Nittany Lions. But the Spartans took their first lead of the game with less than 20 seconds left in the fourth quarter on the Brian Lewerke pass to Felton Davis III for a game-winning touchdown.
“When the ball’s up, it’s just who wants it more,” Davis said of the game winning play. “I put on for my team.”
MSU forced a turnover on the first Penn State possession of the game, but the Nittany Lions scored a touchdown the next time they got the ball. The five-yard McSorley touchdown pass was set up by a 78-yard Miles Sanders run. That one run was the most yards MSU had allowed in an entire game so far this season.
It looked like Penn State had forced another stop, before the Spartans converted a fake punt. Connor Heyward took a direct snap as the up-back in punt formation for 26-yards. Two plays later, the Spartans went into their bag of tricks again. This time Heyward took the handoff and threw deep to Cam Chambers, who was tackled at the one.
It took four tries, but the Spartans finally scored when La’Darius Jefferson scored on a one-yard touchdown run.
Penn State took a seven point lead into halftime after another big running play. This time Sanders went 48-yards into the end zone for a touchdown.
It would be the last time PSU broke the goal line.
A Lewerke interception seemed to set Penn State up for more points in the third quarter. However, the defense forced a turnover on downs, keeping the score 14-7.
The following drive, the offense finally showed some life, in large-part thanks to the best player on the field. The Spartans tied the game up on a 20-yard pass from Lewerke to Davis, who managed to keep his feet in bounds and get the ball into the end zone before falling out of bounds.
Michigan State failed to take advantage of a missed Penn State field goal, giving the Nittany Lions another opportunity to score. PSU drove the ball down the field, getting a first-and-ten at the MSU six. But the defense stood tall with three consecutive stops, forcing a field goal.
Down 17-14, the Spartans put together a strong 65-yard drive. Needing only a field goal to tie, Mark Dantonio made the most controversial call of the season. Lewerke, who was on the field to hold the field goal attempt, took the snap and looked to pass. The pass went to defensive lineman Raequan Williams, but was tipped away.
Had the pass been completed, Williams easily had the first down, if not more. However, with only 5:19 left in the game, the play felt disastrous for Michigan State.
After the game Dantonio, who had three timeouts left at the time of the trick play, said he was going for the win.
“We weren’t going to play to lose, we weren’t going to play to tie,” Dantonio said. The head coach called the play “Little Giants 2,” a reference to Michigan State’s thrilling fake field goal for a touchdown against Notre Dame in 2010.
The gamble didn’t immediately payoff. The Spartans defense forced a punt, but the offense could get nothing going, giving PSU the ball again with only 1:41 left in the game. MSU used a pair of timeouts and forced McSorley into a three-and-out, giving the Spartans offense one last chance.
Lewerke took the field with 1:10 left and immediately started moving down the field. The drive saw a dropped game-ending interception and both Davis and Laress Nelson leave with injuries. Davis used his knees to make one catch, hauling in a Lewerke pass between his legs before falling to the ground.
With 25-seconds left, the Spartans faced a third-and-two at the Penn State 25. That’s when the senior wide receiver made an audible.
The third down play called for Davis to run a hitch. Instead, he told his quarterback he would be going deep.
“He was jumping them,” Davis said of PSU cornerback Amani Oruwariye jumping in front of Davis on hitch routes. “I told Brian I wasn’t running the hitch, I knew he was going to jump it, I told him I was just going deep. It was third and ballgame really. I knew we were going to kick the field goal, we were in field goal range. So I told Brian I was going deep, and he’s got that trust in me.
Davis was right, and he had Oruwariye on a yo-yo. Lewerke’s back-shoulder pass was caught by Davis at the four and taken into the end zone.
With 19 seconds left in the game, the Spartans still needed to kick off and get a stop before the game went final. But they held strong and sealed the Michigan State victory.
Most of the offensive questions MSU started the game with were left unanswered after the win. But the defense proved it is among the best in the nation and Davis is unquestionably one of the best receivers in college football.
The Spartans hopes of a conference championship are still alive after the win. But there is no rest for the weary. After the stunning win, Michigan State will return home to play the Michigan Wolverines next week.