The Michigan State Spartans were on the road again this week for the third time this season, and for the third time the team left with a statement win. This time the Spartans defeated Big Ten East foe, the Rutgers Scarlet Knights, by a final score of 31-13.
Despite predictions by some that the offense would have a tough go of it again like when facing Nebraska, the offense put on a clinic of how to run explosive plays. None were more highlight worthy than Kenneth Walker III’s second half show when he ran it 94-yards for the touchdown. That play marked both the longest rushing touchdown in MSU history and the longest scoring play from the line of scrimmage in Spartan history as well.
There were still a lot of moments where execution was lacking, however, and the coaching staff took note. However, it was still an exuberant mood in the post-game press conference by players and head coach Mel Tucker alike.
Here’s what Coach Tucker had to say for his opening thoughts on the game:
“Really proud of our football team,” Tucker said. “They really came out today, I feel like they played really, really hard today on the road. It wasn’t always perfect, but the effort was there. We need to persevere and keep working to make plays. I feel like we played better defensively in the second half in so many ways. It was all three phases, we made some plays. Whether it was punts, covering kicks, things like that. Defensively, we made some big stops defensively. On offense, having a lot of balance being able to run the ball or to throw it, and we had a lot of players involved. We played a lot of players. We have to have the 24-hour rule and we have to get ready for the next one.
Despite the 18-point victory, Tucker was quick to note that the team had issues on execution in today’s victory that need addressed.
“We still have a lot to prove, we know that, and we still haven’t played our best football,” Tucker said. “So we’re going to continue to work at it. I believe that this group, in particular, they want to get better, the want to play better, (they want to) have less penalties, you know do better on third down and things like that.”
However, Coach Tucker had nothing but praise for the work ethic of the team. He was adamant that this squad wants to play better and is willing to put in the hard work to do exactly that.
“We’re not pulling teeth with these guys during the week preparing for games,” Tucker said. “It’s not like they’re asking ‘Why are you working us so hard coach? Why are you tightening the screws here? Why are you nitpicking about this?’ They understand what works. They’ve also experienced what doesn’t work. For everyone to be consciously competent and understand what it takes to have success, to do that, day in and day out is what gave us the chance to have a successful game today. And that’s what we have with this group.”
As for the composition of this year’s team, Tucker was quick to praise them by pointing out “Obviously we have playmakers.” He admitted that “When you have good players, some difference-makers, that’s what it’s all about. The more good playmakers you have, the better football team you’re going to be.”
Having those players gives the coaching staff confidence in the team. Tucker added that “We know we can make plays and we know we can score. We can move the ball. That’s not the issue.” Again, this team’s success goes back to execution when it comes to its ceiling. Tucker reiterated that “It’s all about the execution. We can drive the ball and we know we can be explosive and get chunks, you know one play, one score.”
However, at the end of the day this group is an unselfish one.
“They have confidence in each other,” Tucker said about his players. ”The thing I like about this group is they are unselfish. One week, you may be talking about Jayden Reed and the next week you are talking about ‘Speedy’ (Jalen Nailor). The plays are out there. We just have to make them on a consistent basis. We’re getting closer, I think, in a lot of areas to be able to do some things.”
Coach Tucker was also asked about the flea flicker being called, and resulting in a third touchdown on that play call this season. His reaction was, frankly, a fun one if you are not the opponent’s defense having to answer for that score.
“I mean, it’s a play,” Tucker said. “It’s like running an inside zone, an outside zone, or running counter. It’s just another play, and if they don’t cover it, then it’s going to be open. We had other explosive plays on other types of plays. It’s an execution thing and we will take advantage of things we see on tape and in the game when we see them. You know, when it’s there, it’s there.”
As for the team, though, coach Tucker finds them a joy to coach.
“This group has a lot of character,” Tucker said. “It’s a fun group to be around day to day. They respond well to coaching. Leaders are starting to emerge and you’re starting to see guys getting better and improving in certain areas. It’s like a momentum snowball. Before a game we know what works and we know what doesn’t work.”
In part, that’s because of the team’s work ethic. The team has been hitting the weight room hard of late, apparently, despite it being the middle of the season. Players are still hitting personal records in their lifts, and this is for the second straight week they are doing it.
“It’s the second week in a row we’ve set records in the weight room before practice,” Tucker said. “Guys are setting in-season PRs (personal records). Who wouldn’t want to coach guys that are going in there on Thursday and setting PRs. Consistently, they understand there is the allusion of choice. If you want to be good then you have to do this and you have to do this. These are the things you have to do to be successful and the team has bought into that. That’s been helping us get the job done. We spend a lot of time around these guys and they have a lot of character and are fun to be around.”
Finally, Tucker essentially clarified that the coaching staff did in fact call for a fake field goal attempt at the end of the opening drive. However, he refused to comment much further than that on the specific play call and credited Rutgers for making the play to stop it.
On the fake FG attempt: that was a scripted play call. Coaching staff thought they had seen what they wanted to call it, but the defense did a great job stopping what MSU wanted to do.— Kevin Knight (@SpartyOnHuskers) October 9, 2021
Running back Kenneth Walker III offered his thoughts on Michigan State’s offense’s explosive plays, saying “It gets us going, you know. I’m very excited that Jalen Nailor had a great game today...and I feel like explosive plays are very important for any team.”
Walker also credited the passing game and quarterback Payton Thorne’s ability to hit receivers for the big plays as opening up the running game for him. Walker was also unaware that his touchdown run was the longest scoring play from scrimmage in MSU history.
“It’s been a great start so far but we have to keep working.”— Kevin Knight (@SpartyOnHuskers) October 9, 2021
As for Jalen Nailor, he was of course asked about his own huge performance.
That play was also one of many that helped vault Nailor into the top-four all-time at Michigan State for single-game receiving yards, along with setting a SHI Stadium record for most receiving yards in a game. The prior MSU record for fourth-most in a game was Charles Rogers’ performance against Wisconsin in 2001 that resulted in 206 yards, while Pittsburgh’s Larry Fitzgerald set the SHI Stadium receiving record in 2003. Nailor was two and four years old, respectively, when those records were set.
With that catch, Nailor also just overtook Charles Rogers for No. 4 on the all-time list for single-game receiving yards. Rogers set that record with 206 against Wisconsin in 2001. https://t.co/5LHDrRx5SO— The Only Colors (@TheOnlyColors) October 9, 2021
Nailor was unaware of the honors, but incredibly humble about it. He credits the offense, and his success, as: “(It) all started with practice this week. We’re grinding trying to make explosive plays whenever we can.”
Was t aware he now owns the SHI Stadium single game receiving record but fees honored and blessed. Credits the coaching staff.— Kevin Knight (@SpartyOnHuskers) October 9, 2021
Nailor added that Thorne, after that catch, told him that Nailor “made it easy” for him. Nailor said that “(It) is always nice to make it easy on the quarterback.” However, he also made that sure to mention that it “was a beautiful throw by Payton.”
Nailor also added he wasn’t sure himself if he was in or out on that catch, but the defense seemed to hesitate as if he was and he took advantage.
Felt like maybe the defense froze a bit as he caught it as well.— Kevin Knight (@SpartyOnHuskers) October 9, 2021
Darius Snow was also available after Nailor for a brief period. He was asked about how the defense handles the explosive nature of the offense at times in how it responds in relation to fatigue. Snow said “You get tired naturally, but I think that we’re so well conditioned throughout the entire team. You know, I think that when the offense does drive, it is better to get to watch them drive down and score and it hurts the other team’s morale more. At the end of the day for us, it is just about keeping loose on the sideline and going out and playing as hard as we can.”
How explosive is MSU’s offense these days? Well, sometimes the defense hasn’t even had time to fully debrief on the sideline before it happens these days. According to Snow, when “Speedy” scored one of his touchdowns, the defense was still “going over adjustments and then I heard the crowd starting to scream.” It is something that unit has had to get adjusted to.
Michigan State fans might also be interested to note that Snow explicitly mentioned that the defense has the goal of “standing ground” and making sure to “bend don’t break” when it comes to keeping points off the board. That was in reference to a question about when MSU’s defense kept Rutgers out of the end zone despite excellent field position following a Spartan offensive turnover.
Thorne was also available for just the briefest of moments before the team had to get out to the bus for the flight home. He offered the following in his thoughts on Nailor, Reed and Walker:
“It’s awesome to play with those guys and to have the versatility that our offense has having two guys on the outside,” Thorne said about Reed and Nailor. “Then obviously Ken (Walker), everybody knows how good of a player he is. It’s a big play waiting to happen.”
But how about that third flea flicker touchdown of the season now? Thorne credited the offensive line for the unit’s blocking, Walker for his consistent ability to pitch the ball back, and the wide receivers for waiting and selling it on the outside. He added on follow up that the general attitude was enthusiasm as the play call trickled in from the sideline to Thorne to Nailor and Walker and the rest of the offense as well.
Thorne also added that the offense this season is “fun” and at times can get rolling and be enjoyable. He credited Rutgers’ defense as being strong and able to make plays, but credited offseason preparation and hard work in practice.