By DAVE CAMPBELL, AP Sports Writer
MINNEAPOLIS (AP) — Though football teams often talk about the importance of swiftly moving their minds toward the next opponent, the euphoria at Michigan State was bound to stick around for a while after the gritty victory at rival Michigan .
“A couple times I’ve been sitting in my room or sitting in my house just thinking, like, ‘Wow, we actually won the game,'” Spartans quarterback Brian Lewerke said.
“That was crazy that we were able to go down there and get a win.”
The embarrassment of finishing 3-9 last season after reaching the four-team College Football Playoff the year before has faded in East Lansing, thanks largely to Lewerke’s smart, tough running and a defense that has surged back to the level of dominance the Spartans have been accustomed to under coach Mark Dantonio.
Beating Iowa and then-No. 7 Michigan to start Big Ten play has put 21st-ranked Michigan State (4-1, 2-0) in prime position to challenge East Division powers Penn State and Ohio State for a place in the conference championship game. The Spartans have cracked the Top 25 for the first time since Sept. 25, 2016.
“The confidence level is incredible,” defensive end Kenny Willekes said. “To go down to Ann Arbor and get a huge win like that is fantastic.”
Michigan State plays at Minnesota (3-2, 0-2) on Saturday night, starting a three-game stretch that could help the Spartans build more momentum for the daunting start to November. They play Indiana on Oct. 21 and at Northwestern on Oct. 28, before hosting Penn State and visiting Ohio State.
The Gophers lost their first two Big Ten games under first-year coach P.J. Fleck, to Maryland and Purdue. In losing to the Boilermakers last week , the Gophers held the lead for 33:24 of game time, including with less than 2 minutes left.
“Finishing comes from a lot of things, and one is experience: Being in those situations an awful lot and doing it right, and then also not doing it,” Fleck said. “What does it feel like to do? What does it feel like not to do it? To consistently do that. Then there’s that confidence factor of knowing you can do it and that there is no stopping you, right?”
Here are some key angles to follow with the game:
STILL THE STARTER
Conor Rhoda had two turnovers in each of the last two games for the Gophers, but Fleck reiterated that the fifth-year senior remains the starter, even if he sounded less than resounding in his declaration.
“Well, he’s the best quarterback we have right now,’ Fleck said. “That’s the easiest way to be able to go through it in my mind.”
Rhoda, who’s ninth in the conference with an average of 157.2 yards passing per game, has only made six career starts.
“But time is also running out to continue to have learning experiences,” he said, “and that falls on me.”
GROUP ON THE GROUND
Lewerke is by far Michigan State’s leading rusher, with 309 yards and three touchdowns. Running back L.J. Scott was injured and missed the Michigan game, and backup Gerald Holmes hurt his ankle that night. Madre London is also in the mix at the position.
“All three, I’ve always counted them as starters,” Dantonio said, adding: “I don’t care who plays. I just care whoever is playing gets a hot hand. We’ve yet to do that really, get the hot hand. All of a sudden a guy starts running for over a hundred yards. But that’s coming.”
Soon after Dantonio took over at Michigan State, he initiated a plan to not only play multiple games against the state’s three lower-tier FBS teams but to play them at their place too as a revenue boost and attention getter for Central Michigan, Eastern Michigan and Western Michigan. The Spartans took their No. 5 preseason ranking to Kalamazoo for the 2015 opener against Fleck and Western Michigan, a rare move that made a strong impression.
“That’s the type of coach he is,” Fleck said. “He sees the bigger picture.”
Minnesota’s Ryan Santoso leads the Big Ten with a gross average of 44.4 yards per punt, a valuable asset for an offense that has produced mixed-at-best performances in the first two conference games. Michigan State’s Jake Hartbarger is further down the list, ranking eighth in the league in gross average with 41.8 yards per attempt, but such statistics can be misleading. Hartbarger punted a career-most 11 times against Michigan, which totaled only 6 yards of returns. That was an unsung factor in the victory. The week before when the Spartans beat Iowa, Hartbarger landed four of his five punts inside the 10-yard line. The other one dropped at the 16.
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