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Michigan State Hangs on for 30-27 Win over Minnesota
October 14, 2017

Lightning, wet balls, turnovers, and a quarterback switch were part of a Saturday night experience for Minnesota fans, who saw their Gophers fall to the 17th-ranked Michigan State Spartans 30-27.

The Spartans had to corral a couple of onside kicks to stop a Gophers comeback as Tyler Johnson caught three fourth-quarter touchdown passes from Demry Croft, who came in to spark an offense that had no spark under quarterback Conor Rhoda.

Lightning in the area just before 7 p.m. prompted a clearing of the field and an announcement to the fans to seek cover in the concourse. The game finally started at 7:44, a delay of 34 minutes, and both teams encountered problems with the wet conditions.

Michigan State, on its first possession, stalled in part to a dropped snap by quarterback Brian Lewerke, who fell on it but for a loss. Back to punt Jake Hartbarger couldn’t handle a high snap. A skirmish for the ball ended up with Minnesota getting it on the Michigan State 3.

However, Rhoda dropped a snap and recovered for a loss of three yards. After two incomplete passes, Emmit Carpenter was brought in for a 25-yard field goal to give the Gophers a 3-0 lead.

The running of L. J. Scott and a key third-down reception by Hunter Rison put the Spartans deep enough in Gophers territory that Matt Coghlin was able to tie the score with a 42-yard field goal midway through the fourth quarter.

Shannon Brooks put Minnesota in a hole when he took Brett Scanlon’s kickoff in the end zone, hesitated, and then ran it out, getting only to the 15. Brooks put the Gophers in a bigger hole when he fumbled Rhoda’s handoff, and Michigan State’s Kenny Willekes recovered on the 8. It took only two runs by Madre London to reach the end zone and to put the Spartans in front to stay.

The Gophers couldn’t advance the ball and got a punt of only 30 yards by Ryan Santoso, but they got the ball back quickly as Duke McGhee intercepted a pass from Lewerke on the Spartans 34. The offense behind Rhoda remained moribund, and all Minnesota could do following the turnover was get a 47-yard field goal from Carpenter to cut the lead to 10-6.

Mistakes by Rhoda were a critical part of the Gophers’ inability to reach the end zone. On the third-down play prior to the field goal, Rhoda overthrew Mark Williams, who was at the goal line. On the previous drive, the Gophers took a 6-yard loss when Rhoda kneeled while taking a snap and was ruled down.

Michigan State increased the lead to 17-6 early in the second quarter on a 24-yard touchdown run by Scott and caught a break on the ensuing kickoff when Brooks went down to a knee to catch the kick, downing the ball at the Minnesota 2.

Coach P. J. Fleck tried one more drive with Rhoda and then switched to Croft, although it took some time and a turnover for any results to be seen.

Coghlin connected on two more field goals in the third quarter, and the Spartans were in control when they got the ball back in the fourth quarter. But Scott, with 141 yards rushing at that point, fumbled, and Minnesota linebacker Thomas Barber recovered on the Michigan State 27.

Brooks fumbled but recovered for a one-yard loss on the first play for the Gophers, but Croft then hit Johnson, who was open over the middle at the 10. Johnson bobbled the ball but hung on and reached the end zone.

Their lead cut to 10, the Spartans benefited from Heyward’s long kickoff return, an 18-yard run by London (who fumbled out of bounds) and three runs by Scott to reach the end zone and re-establish their 17-point lead.

Minnesota struck back with Croft running and passing the Gophers downfield and completing a 17-yard scoring pass to Johnson with 5:20 left.

Down by 10, Minnesota opted for an onside kick, but Khari Willis of the Spartans handled it cleanly at the Minnesota 46. The Gophers used their final two time outs and stopped Michigan State. When Coghlin missed a 45-yard field-goal attempt, Minnesota took over at its 27 with 3:01 left.

Croft completed a 22-yard pass to Williams on fourth down, got sacked two plays later, and came back with a run for 20 yards. On the run, Croft flipped a pass to Brooks, who ran down to the 9, and two plays later found Johnson in the end zone for the duo’s third hookup of the quarter.

Little over a minute remained and the Gophers, with no time outs, had to try another onside kick. Like the previous one, this attempt wasn’t successful, and the Spartans were able to run out the clock and escape with a 30-27 win.

Scott ran for 194 yards and London for 74 to lead the Michigan State offense, which got 120 yards passing from Lewerke. Smith, with 44 yards, was the Gophers’ leading rusher, but Croft was right behind him with 43 yards. Croft also completed 11 of 20 passes for 163 yards, and Tyler Johnson led all receivers with 8 catches for 106 yards.

“He showed me resiliency,” Fleck said of Croft. “I think he has come a long way. Failing is growth. I planned on possibly giving him reps today anyway. It just came to a point where I put him in and then talked about putting Conor in there. But then he started moving the team and I kept him in there. He continued to do that so I continued to give him opportunities.”

The Gophers next play Illinois in their homecoming game.

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