Michigan State is working on some historic defensive numbers, and many say this could be the best defense in school history. Safety Isaiah Lewis isn't ready to go there yet.
"It's still how you finish," Lewis said. "People only remember the last thing you do."
Lewis found that out the hard way two years ago in the Big Ten championship game. He's hoping to leave a better lasting memory this week as the No. 10 Spartans return to Indianapolis to play No. 2 Ohio State.
Lewis was involved in the deciding play of the 42-39 Big Ten title loss to Wisconsin in 2011. With less than two minutes remaining, the Badgers were forced to punt. Michigan State went for the punt block and Lewis brushed the leg of Wisconsin punter Brad Nortman. That 5-yard penalty nullified a big return by Keshawn Martin and gave the Badgers a first down and the ability to run out the clock.
Before that penalty, Lewis had turned in a strong defensive performance.
"But that last play was kind of bad for me, so all I heard was, 'You did terrible,'" he said. "You never want to lose a game like that."
Teammate Max Bullough remembers how down Lewis was in the locker room after the loss.
"Right after the game, he probably thought he was the reason we lost the game," the Spartans senior linebacker said. "I think that’s probably tough for a guy, especially a young player. But we really embraced him in the locker room. The seniors did as well."
What made that night even tougher for Lewis was that it happened in his hometown of Indianapolis, so friends and family members were watching closely. His high school coach, Mike Kirschner, sat in the Lucas Oil Stadium stands for the game.
"I was sitting with a bunch of Michigan State fans, and after that call, I felt like I needed to leave," said Kirschner, who coached Lewis at Ben Davis High School. "I talked to him a couple of weeks after the fact, and he was real frustrated. He told me, 'Now I see who my real friends are. People who I thought were on my side are giving me crap.'"
But Lewis' teammates and coaches told him repeatedly that he was not to blame for the loss. Again this week, Spartans head coach Mark Dantonio took responsibility for the penalty.
"I sent him on the punt block," Dantonio said Monday. "I told him to go get it. That responsibility lies with me."
Luckily, Lewis has never lacked confidence or an ability to bounce back from tough luck.
He tore his ACL midway through his senior season of high school but still managed to play a lot in 2010 as a true freshman for a Michigan State program that redshirts most first-year players. After the 2011 Big Ten championship game loss, Michigan State beat Georgia in the Outback Bowl, and Kirschner said Lewis told him, "That made it all go away." Lewis has been one of the top safeties in the Big Ten the past two seasons and was named first-team all-conference by the coaches this week.
So this isn't really a potential redemption story, because Lewis has already accomplished a lot in his career. Still, he knows how finishing acts can color perception and memory, and he sees this week as a big opportunity.
"I just want to win the game," he said. "I'm not thinking about payback or anything. I want to go to the Rose Bowl."