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Michigan State Football: 3 Takeaways from win over Rutgers

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The Spartans are bowl eligible and 6-0 after a 31-13 win over the Scarlet Knights.

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: OCT 09 Michigan State at Rutgers Photo by Rich Graessle/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Come the end of the season, the Michigan State Spartans are going bowling again! After a sloppy first half with mistakes on both sides of the ball, the Spartans shut out the Rutgers Scarlet Knights in the second half and rolled to a 31-13 victory in Piscataway.

Running back Kenneth Walker III created a buzz on social media and seems to have cemented himself in the Heisman Trophy conversation after he broke off a 94-yard touchdown run, which also set a record for the longest play from scrimmage in Michigan State program history. Wide receiver Jalen Nailor also had a record-breaking performance, notching a whopping 221 yards receiving with three touchdowns. It was the highest receiving yardage in a single game at SHI Stadium since Larry Fitzgerald had 207 yards in 2003 while playing for Pittsburgh. And who could forget kicker Matt Coghlin’s field goal that put him atop the leaderboard at Michigan State for career field goals made in a career with 72. It was also another strong performance from quarterback Payton Thorne.

It was a record-breaking day for the Spartans, but it wasn’t perfect, and MSU believes its best football is still to come. Let’s dive into this week’s takeaways.

Simple mistakes continue

One thing that has held the Spartans back at times this season has been simple mistakes and that continued in the first half against Rutgers. From miscommunication, missed blocks, delay of game penalties, questionable play calls on fourth down and poor time management, the Spartans killed drives and missed opportunities for points. Michigan State led 21-13 at halftime, but it felt like the team could have been up another few scores. The Spartans still have their biggest games ahead of them, and teams like Ohio State, Penn State and Michigan will make you pay for those mistakes. Moving forward, that’s something MSU need to fix as soon as possible.

The Michigan State defense takes another step forward

The Spartan defense continued to improve again this week. After a shaky start to the game, The defense settled in, and didn’t allow a single point in the second half, and didn’t allow a first down in the third quarter. It was a glimpse that the defense can really lock down when needed, and the defense just continues to improve week to week. The second half was pretty dominant this week from the defense — keep in mind that linebacker Cal Haladay had to sit out the first half of the game due to a targeting call against Western Kentucky — and the Spartans showed more flashes of their potential.

The “bend-but-don’t-break” defense is seeming to do its job through the halfway point in the season. Looking ahead, the Spartans are going to face some pretty talented teams, so it will be interesting to see if the defense holds up in those matchups, or if the coaches need to come up with a different game plan.

Mel Tucker deserves a ton of credit

After last year’s 2-5 season in the COVID-shortened season, many people around the country predicted another down year for Michigan State in 2021. The Spartans were projected to finish last in the Big Ten East Division, and the over/under for MSU’s win total was set at 4.5 before the season. Now, the Spartans are 6-0 for the first time since 2015 and ranked in the Associated Press top-10 for the first time since September of 2016. This start has seemingly come out of nowhere, but head coach Mel Tucker deserves a ton of credit for putting the Spartans in this position, and depending on how the Spartans finish the year, could be a national Coach of the Year candidate.

Tucker not only has gotten players on the roster from the last few seasons playing at a high level — which illustrates the MSU staff’s ability to develop players — but he also made the transfer portal a priority this offseason, and that’s clearly paying off. Several of the transfers Tucker went after in the portal — Walker, left tackle Jarrett Horst, linebacker Quavaris Crouch, cornerbacks Chester Kimbrough and Ronald Williams and others —have made an impact early on for the Spartans, and that’s likely to continue for the rest of the year.

Tucker transformed an offense that’s been lackluster, to put it mildly, in previous years into one of the most explosive in college football, and has Michigan State poised for a strong finish to close out the year. The expectations have risen from the start of the year, and now fans are hungry for success. There are still improvements to be made, but the Spartans have consistently stepped forward each week, and I’m confident they will make the necessary adjustments going forward.

The Spartans will face the Indiana Hoosiers next week in Bloomington. Kickoff is set for noon Eastern Time and will air on FS1.