MINNEAPOLIS (AP) — Michigan State didn’t let the thrill of beating Michigan last week deter the momentum.
Coach Mark Dantonio and his staff weren’t even worried about a letdown at Minnesota. Confidence is high, and so is the ambition.
L.J. Scott returned from an injury to carry the ball 25 times for a career-high 194 yards and two touchdowns , helping the 21st-ranked Spartans hang on for a 30-27 victory over Minnesota on a soggy Saturday night after kickoff was delayed 34 minutes by lightning strikes.
“We’ve always found a way to get guys going,” said Dantonio, who gave his players a “10 out of 10” for their approach. “We’ve always found a way to get guys coming to every football game ready to play.”
Madre London pitched in 74 yards rushing and a score, Matt Coghlin made three field goals and the Spartans (5-1, 3-0 Big Ten) followed their win over the rival Wolverines with a solid performance fueled by their offensive line and the smooth running of Scott on toss sweep after toss sweep. Quarterback Brian Lewerke had been the leading rusher in four of the first five games, so the surge by the tailbacks was a welcomed development.
“You’ve got to give them credit,” Minnesota coach P.J. Fleck said. “That’s what they do well.”
Demry Croft relieved a struggling Conor Rhoda at quarterback for the Gophers (3-3, 0-3) in the middle of the second quarter and connected with Tyler Johnson for three touchdown passes in the fourth. The late surge, however, wasn’t enough to overcome the bruising, pulling and trapping Spartans blockers who wore down an injury-depleted Gophers defense.
“Give my credit to the o-line up front for making things happen,” said Scott, whose only fault was a lost fumble in the fourth quarter. “It definitely feels great to be back out there on the field with my brothers.”
Scott was only a spectator for the fun in the previous game, when the Spartans forced five turnovers to hold on through a thunderstorm for a 14-10 win at Michigan. That proved to be a beneficial experience, given the torrential rain that fell sideways in the swirling wind right before the game and during much of the first half.
The wet weather was a major factor early. Punter Jake Hartbarger dropped a high snap after a three-and-out by the Spartans on their first possession, and the Gophers jumped on the ball at the 3.
But just as they did later in the first quarter after an interception of Lewerke by Gophers safety Duke McGhee at the 34, the Spartans stiffened on defense and gave up only a field goal. The Gophers netted 1 yard on those two scoring drives.
The Spartans had 199 yards rushing, excluding the 28-yard loss Hartbarger took on the fumble, through three quarters. They held the ball for 13:28 in the third quarter, with just 1:32 of possession time for the Gophers.
“The offense really needs to work on not letting the defense bail us out a lot,” Lewerke said. “I think we put a little too much pressure on us by turning the ball over, but they’ve obviously done a great job of coming up big when we need them.”
The fourth quarter was a different story, when Croft scrambled around to keep the desperation drives going and create several highlights. Johnson finished with eight receptions for 106 yards, and Croft went 11 for 20 for 163 yards and one interception while gaining 31 yards on seven rushes.
“That was the team I couldn’t wait to see. I couldn’t wait,” Fleck said. “Running good routes. Creating good plays.”
Michigan State: Having already established last week that their 3-9 record in 2016 was the aberration, not the 65 wins over the previous six years, the Spartans are aiming higher after a promising first half of the season. They’ll be favored to win their next two games, before the litmus test arrives with back-to-back matchups with Penn State and Ohio State.
There’s work to be done, as Lewerke will need to lead a more efficient and productive passing game, but confidence can go a long way. Lewerke finished 9 for 18 for 120 yards.
“We’ve got some guys doing big things,” Dantonio said. “We’ve just got to be able clean up some of the things that always come up and bite you.”
Minnesota: Croft’s athleticism and creativity created a spark and some hope for the second half of the season, his three-game suspension for unspecified off-the-field issues now behind him. Fleck said he made the switch because of multiple mistakes by Rhoda, including a dropped snap and an inadvertent knee on the turf while trying to a snag a different snap. Croft had already been considered for some playing time during the week.
“With his legs, I thought we could be able to create more,” Fleck said.
Michigan State: The Spartans host Indiana, which took Michigan to overtime in a 27-20 loss on Saturday.
Minnesota: The Gophers host Illinois, which lost 35-24 to Rutgers on Saturday to fall to 2-10 in Big Ten play under coach Lovie Smith.