Michigan State gets shot to reshape perception in return to Ann Arbor

EAST LANSING, Mich. -- Michigan State quarterback Brian Lewerke was sitting on a couch in his buddy’s basement for what he considers one of his favorite memories as a Spartan.

Lewerke was a true freshman waiting his turn in 2015 when Michigan State last made the 65-mile drive to Ann Arbor to play Michigan. He wasn’t on the travel list. So the West Coast native found a friend with a big projector screen in East Lansing and joined a couple dozen others for his introduction to the hostile, in-state rivalry game. He was ready to slink back upstairs, depressed by a loss, when Jalen Watts-Jackson returned the most memorable blocked punt in recent history.

“I started jumping on the couch and nearly fell over,” he said this week. “Everyone was just screaming.”

Lewerke will be at center stage this weekend at the Big House, leading a 3-1 Spartans team coming off a “confidence booster” of a win against Iowa on Saturday. Michigan State already has matched its win total from 2016, the worst season in Mark Dantonio's decade as a head coach, and now stares down a low-pressure shot to restore its perception on the field much sooner than anyone outside of East Lansing expected. The seventh-ranked Wolverines and their stingy defense remain heavy favorites, but an upset on Saturday would make Michigan State a force to reckon with in the Big Ten again and quickly jump to the top of Lewerke’s favorite moments.

It’s remarkable for a couple reasons that the starting quarterback (and to be fair he has been fully entrenched in that spot for only four games now) counts so fondly among his football memories a night when he sat on the couch and watched his teammates from an hour away.

First it’s a reminder of just how large a dose of college football’s unique brand of magic enveloped that game and that play. Beating an undefeated Michigan team on the rise in such an unimaginable, last-second fashion turned the psychological “little brother” complex on its head in ways that winning six of the previous seven meetings with the Wolverines had not. Dantonio, who has embraced this rivalry as much as any current coach has embraced the passion of any rivalry, seemingly had their number.

Second is that the Spartans have had as sharp of a decline in happy moments as any program in the country since then. Lewerke played as part of an unsettled rotation under center during a 3-9 season in 2016. He looked his most promising against the Wolverines, when he threw for 100 yards before suffering a broken leg in the second half, decidedly not a high moment for the young quarterback.

In 2015, Michigan State went on to beat Ohio State and win a Big Ten title in dramatic fashion in the months following Watts-Jackson’s return, but the stunner of a victory in Ann Arbor felt for a time like the peak of Dantonio’s stranglehold on the state of Michigan. This Saturday provides a somewhat unexpected shortcut to convince others that the fall on the field hasn’t been as precipitous or permanent as it appeared.

“We’re really excited to prove that we can play with the top teams in the nation,” linebacker Chris Frey said. “And it doesn’t matter what happened in the past, we’re a different team.”

There would still be heavy lifting ahead of them. A win against Michigan wouldn’t suddenly launch the Spartans back into contention for Big Ten titles. It would, though, provide the biggest confidence boost to date for a team and locker room that was divided in defeat last year.

Win against Michigan and a lot more seems possible for this year’s Spartans. A bowl trip, which was considered the mark of acceptable improvement at the start of the year, would be close to a sure thing. Doubts about how long it would take to repair some of the cracks that appeared in their foundation would be easier to flush.

“Any time you can beat those guys, good things happen around here,” center Brian Allen said. “Everyone is happier. Everything is genuinely better.”

Middle linebacker Joe Bachie, Lewerke’s counterpart for Michigan State’s defense, was still in high school during the team’s last trip to the Big House two years ago. He was working as a volunteer scoreboard operator for a youth league and checking scores on his phone periodically that night. He tucked the phone away in the fourth quarter and assumed his future teammates had lost before his pocket started vibrating incessantly.

Like Lewerke, Bachie didn’t need to be there to understand what a win against the Wolverines could do for the rest of the year.

“I don’t know what that feeling is yet. We didn’t get that win and get the job done (last year), but we know what this game means. I know what this game means,” he said. “It’s a statement game for us.”