EAST LANSING, Mich. — It's been less than a month since Michigan State's Rose Bowl dreams fell apart in gut-wrenching fashion at the end of the Big Ten championship game.
Isaiah Lewis was in the middle of two of the night's most important plays, and neither went the Spartans' way. But in case anyone was wondering, the sophomore safety got over it quickly.
"My whole life playing sports, from a little kid coming up through high school — things happen. I'll deal with it," Lewis said recently. "You've got to learn from your mistakes to get better."
No. 12 Michigan State takes on No. 18 Georgia in the Outback Bowl on Monday. The Spartans are playing in Tampa, Fla. — instead of at the Rose Bowl — because of their 42-39 loss to Wisconsin in the Big Ten title game. It was an excruciating defeat that was sealed when Lewis ran into the punter in the final minutes.
For Michigan State, the healing process was swift.
"We wouldn't be where we're at without Isaiah Lewis," coach Mark Dantonio said. "He's a quick, explosive guy that plays the game the way it's supposed to be played — all out, he goes to make plays. I really haven't sensed any kind of disappointment in him. He just goes about his business. Walks out there, he's a quiet, unassuming individual, always goes to work with a smile."
That's the type of person reporters found earlier this month when they talked with Lewis about the championship game mishap. This has been a big season Lewis, who has started all 13 games for the Spartans (10-3) and returned two interceptions for touchdowns, including a 39-yard score to help cap an October victory over rival Michigan.
It's easy to forget all that because of what happened in Michigan State's most recent game. On fourth-and-6 from around midfield in the fourth quarter, Wisconsin's Russell Wilson heaved a desperation pass. Lewis was deep in coverage, but was unable to prevent Jeff Duckworth from making the catch at the Michigan State 7.
On the next play, the Badgers scored what would be the winning touchdown, but the Spartans had another chance. After punting, they stopped Wisconsin and forced the Badgers to punt. Michigan State's Keshawn Martin returned the kick all the way to the Wisconsin 3, momentarily thinking he'd made the play that was going to send his team to Pasadena.
"Then, it's just all gone," said Martin, who didn't notice the flag until the end of the play.
Lewis had run into punter Brad Nortman, and the 5-yard penalty gave Wisconsin a first down with 1:37 left, effectively ending the game.
The Spartans were quick to rally around Lewis, who has been determined not to let the sequence faze him.
"I'm impressed how he's handled the situation," said Martin, a senior. "He bounced back from it. I feel like, going on with the rest of his career, he's going to be a pretty good player. They're going to have more championship games."
Trenton Robinson, a defensive back who will play his final game for Michigan State on Monday, spoke for pretty much everyone on the team when he looked back on Lewis' role in the title game.
"You don't lose a football game off of one play," Robinson said. "Everybody tells him we love him. We all had mistakes that game."
Lewis has no choice but to move on and his role could be even bigger next season. Robinson's emotional presence will be missed, but Lewis figures he's capable of growing into that job.
"As far as a leadership role, yeah, I'm ready to take that spot. I'm going to be like how Trenton was," Lewis said.
"I'm going to do what I've got to do for us to be on the same level."
The tough part this December has been a seemingly interminable layoff before another game. Most of the time, a player like Lewis can bounce back from a rough night by taking the field again a week later. For Lewis, the wait has been about four weeks, but that just means the near-miss against Wisconsin is already that far in the past.
"I don't want to have that feeling again," he said. "I'm trying to get this win and go into next season with momentum."