Brian Lewerke was talking collectively about the Michigan State football team when discussing the gradual growth of the young Spartans after a 38-18 loss to Notre Dame on Saturday night at Spartan Stadium.
But whether intentional or not, the sophomore quarterback’s words applied to himself more so than any other player in the MSU locker room.
“I think as every game goes by, you learn more stuff about the game of college football and how it works, how the speed works,” Lewerke said in what ended up being the early hours of Sunday morning. “Obviously, we’re a younger team, and I think as the games go on we’ll get to that point.”
Michigan State’s youth showed early and often Saturday night, and Lewerke made the first big mistake that could be attributed to inexperience. After Notre Dame marched down the field for a touchdown on its opening drive, MSU came out looking to match, and the Spartans picked up an early third-down conversion when Lewerke hit Darrell Stewart Jr. for a nine-yard completion. After a four-yard completion to Felton Davis III and an incompletion intended for Stewart, Lewerke dropped back to throw for the fifth straight time on 3rd-and-6.
Before he stepped under center, Lewerke knew where he wanted to go with his third-down throw, and immediately after taking the snap he looked left toward Stewart running an out at the sticks. Without ever looking elsewhere, Lewerke fired a telegraphed pass behind Stewart that was picked off by Notre Dame corner Julian Love and returned 59 yards the other way to put the Irish up 14-0 less than five minutes into the game.
Lewerke said he expected Stewart to be open as soon as the play was called. He also later admitted the interception might have been the result of getting caught up in playing his first prime time rivalry game at Spartan Stadium as MSU’s starting quarterback.
“I think just slow the game down, not let the moment get too big,” Lewerke said when asked what he needs to do to avoid such mistakes. “I think maybe that might have happened on that pick-six. My head was spinning a little bit maybe.”
Following the pick-six, Lewerke settled in and Michigan State responded with a touchdown drive that saw the sophomore QB run for 52 yards on a quarterback sneak before capping things off with a four-yard touchdown pass to Stewart. Unfortunately, Lewerke made one more critical error two possessions later. With the Spartans facing another 3rd-and-6 from their own 23-yard line, Lewerke was flushed out of pocket to his left as he looked to throw. He ended up tucking the ball down to run, and instead of just taking what he could and living with a punt, Lewerke tried to escape a tackle by Greer Martini with a swim move. Predictably, that decision didn’t go well for Lewerke, as the ball came loose and was recovered by Notre Dame, which found the end zone six plays later to go up 21-7.
Again, Lewerke’s inexperience got the best of him.
“I just have to be more focused, more in-tune with the game and not try to make too many plays and do stuff like that,” Lewerke said. “You have to be more focused and realize the situation.”
Youth can only be an excuse for so long, and Lewerke’s casualness with the ball when he’s scrambling has been an issue throughout the first three games of the season. He was able to overcome his mistakes with the help of his teammates in wins over Bowling Green and Western Michigan, but he saw Saturday night that he can’t make those miscues against the likes of Notre Dame and Big Ten teams and still win games.
“I think in this game, you have to take your risks,” said Lewerke, who ended up throwing for 340 yards and two touchdowns on 31-for-51 passing. “But also cut back at times and try to be safer and limit the turnovers.”
We’ll find out in a week if Lewerke learned from the loss to Notre Dame, as Michigan State next welcomes Iowa to town for the Spartans’ first game of Big Ten play. The Hawkeyes lost to No. 4 Penn State on the final play of the game Saturday night in Iowa City. Iowa forced two turnovers in the game, intercepting Nittany Lions QB Trace McSorley and recovering one of his two fumbles.
Next Saturday will be the sixth start of Lewerke’s still relatively young career. Despite his turnover problems, Lewerke said his confidence is not an issue, and it wasn’t one at any point Saturday night. His decision-making, however, has to be increasingly better, beginning against Iowa.
“I think it’s an ongoing process,” co-offensive coordinator Dave Warner said. “It’s not something we’re going to address now; that’s something we’ve talked about all the time. That’s part of a quarterback’s job. The biggest part of his job is decision-making, and he just needs to focus in. … That’s a continuing process, and we need to make progress in that area.”
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