SAN DIEGO — With its 42-17 win over No. 18 Washington State in the Holiday Bowl on Thursday night, No. 16 Michigan State made good on a tweet coach Mark Dantonio fired off in December 2016.
“I really can’t remember tweeting that out,” Dantonio said of a message that read, “We will rise up again, put your name on it.”
“But I did feel like that,” he said. “I did feel we’d rise up.”
Michigan State (10-3) limped to a 3-9 finish in 2016, one season removed from winning the Big Ten Conference championship and participating in the College Football Playoff. Dantonio said winning 10 games in 2017 — a feat accomplished just seven times prior in Michigan State history — was an important milestone in rebounding from the previous season’s failures.
The Spartans needed patience to get win No. 10, going scoreless for almost 22 minutes to open the game at SDCCU Stadium. But the wait was worth it.
Michigan State scored touchdowns on five consecutive possessions from 7:34 in the second quarter through 5:08 in the third, three of which came via Brian Lewerke passes. The quarterback and Offensive Most Valuable Player connected twice with Cody White and once with Felton Davis, who finished with 118 yards on four receptions.
Lewerke totaled 213 yards passing and 73 rushing. He nearly ran for a fourth score but was sidelined on a hard hit at the goal line. Backup Damion Terry came on, and his 6-yard touchdown run put a bow on the Spartans’ midgame streak of dominance.
“It is awesome he was able to go in and get a touchdown in the last game,” Lewerke said of Terry. “So happy for him.”
Washington State (9-4) struggled to mount a consistent offensive attack, with quarterback Luke Falk scratched because of a wrist injury. Falk warmed up pregame but returned before kickoff in street clothes.
“We had a sense of it that he wasn’t going to play,” Washington State coach Mike Leach said. “(It) is unfortunate because of what he’s done here, but we have to look out for what’s in the best interest of him and the other players.”
Sophomore Tyler Hilinski started in place of Falk, the career Pac-12 Conference passing leader. Hilinski completed 39 of 50 passes to eight targets for 272 yards — 102 yards below Washington State’s per-game average.
The Cougars did not get into end zone until late in the third quarter, when Hilinski found Tay Martin for a 14-yard touchdown pass, culminating a drive of 80 yards.
“We missed a couple of third downs,” Hilinski said of the Cougars’ 5-of-11 rate on third-down conversions. “We had a drop, an out-of-bounds. We weren’t able to do what we wanted and a lot of that was me missing reads and stuff. We weren’t able to get it downfield.”
Washington State owed some of its offensive woes to a thoroughly depleted running back rotation. Jamal Morrow came out in the second quarter with an injury and James Williams left early in the fourth. With Gerard Wicks hampered, the Cougars rushed just eight times for 24 yards — with 7 yards coming on a Hilinski run in the fourth quarter.
Frankie Luvu’s interception of Terry’s pass set up a scoring drive that gave Washington State a glimmer of hope. Martin scored his second touchdown of the night on a 15-yard catch, but Michigan State fielded the ensuing onside kick attempt to quash Washington State’s comeback bid.
Spartans running back L.J. Scott rushed for his second touchdown of the night, a 28-yarder, to slam the door. Scott finished with 110 yards on 18 carries and ended the night declaring his intent to return to Michigan State for the 2018 season.
“Michigan State is a great place and I knew he loved everybody that’s here,” Davis said of Scott. “We had unfinished business, let alone his individual stats, but team goals.”
Those team goals, Davis said, started with winning the Big Ten East, then the conference championship.
The Spartans will aim to build in 2018 off the 2017 Holiday Bowl, in which points initially came at a premium. The Cougars took an early lead on a 45-yard field goal by Erik Powell 10 minutes in. It was the only Washington State drive into Michigan State territory before the break.
The game’s first touchdown came with 7:34 remaining before halftime as Lewerke capped a 16-play, 81-yard drive with a 15-yard strike to White.
Michigan State did not have to wait nearly as long for its next two scores. After a quick Washington State punt, Lewerke found Davis wide open, well behind the deepest Cougars defender, for a 49-yard touchdown pass.
“The first thing that went through my head was just don’t drop it,” Davis said.
Scott ended a 2:43 drive just before halftime with a 3-yard rushing touchdown to put Michigan State ahead 21-3.
NOTES: Washington State QB Luke Falk ended his college career at 14,481 passing yards, No. 7 among Division I players. ... Michigan State QB Brian Lewerke averaged 16.4 yards per completion, WSU QB Tyler Hilinski just 7 YPC. ... MSU scored 21 points in the second quarter. The Spartans outscored Rutgers 21-0 in the fourth quarter of the season finale on Nov. 25. ... WSU WR Tay Martin’s two scores gave him six for the season, tying a program record for touchdown catches by a freshman.