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Notes & Quotes: Mel Tucker says the Michigan State Spartans are “willing to work for it and willing to earn it”

“(I) love to coach this football team,” Tucker said. “They’re willing to work for it and they’re willing to earn it, and that’s important. There’s no sense of entitlement in that locker room.”

NCAA Football: Western Kentucky at Michigan State Raj Mehta-USA TODAY Sports

The Michigan State Spartans defeated the Western Kentucky Hilltoppers by a final score of 48 to 31 in the 2021 homecoming game. MSU never trailed throughout the contest, and the Spartans were dominant on offense.

The Michigan State offense — after struggling last week against the Nebraska Cornhuskers — came alive in the first half against Western Kentucky. MSU scored 42 points in the first half compared to Western Kentucky’s 16 points. This marked the first time the Spartans have scored 40 points in the first half of a game since leading Wyoming 42-7 on Sept. 27, 2014.

The Spartans would only score six points in the second half, but finished out the game with a 17-point victory. Michigan State head coach Mel Tucker was happy with the way his team focused throughout the week of practice and performed on Saturday night.

“I’m really proud of this football team because of the way they worked this past week, they worked with a purpose” Tucker said.

Tucker was also appreciative of the students, fans and alumni in the stands who had Spartan Stadium rocking during the homecoming game.

“Our fans were incredible tonight, it was an electric atmosphere,” Tucker sad. “The student section, they were at an elite level, and we appreciate that. At homecoming, there is an expectation of coming back and supporting our football team. In turn, we need to show up and play ball and play a brand of football that everyone can be proud of. We came out early and did that — mission accomplished.”

Tucker was highly-complimentary about Western Kentucky, saying the Hilltoppers are a good football team multiple times throughout the postgame press conference, and calling WKU quarterback Bailey Zappe “a special player” who will “have a shot” at the NFL.

While the win on Saturday night was big, and the 5-0 start is great, Tucker says the most important thing is what the Spartans do next. As usual, he mentioned the “24-hour rule,” which means the team will enjoy the victory for a day, but the focus then immediately shifts to next week’s opponent, Rutgers. And Tucker knows his players will come back to practice next week focused and prepared on the Scarlet Knights.

“(I) love to coach this football team,” Tucker said. “They’re willing to work for it and they’re willing to earn it, and that’s important. There’s no sense of entitlement in that locker room.”

One of the stars for the Spartans on Saturday night — and really for much of the entire season so far — was wide receiver Jayden Reed. Reed took his first touch of the game 88 yards for a touchdown on a punt return, had a 46-yard receiving touchdown and totaled 285 all purpose yards (127 receiving, seven rushing, 63 kick return and 88 punt return).

When asked about the impact that Reed makes on the field, Tucker pointed out Reed’s talent, but also his work ethic and humbleness.

“What you see is what you get (with Reed),” Tucker said. “He does that in practice — he practices at a high level. He’s a very explosive player. He can do a lot. He plays with really good toughness, he’s hyper-competitive. Like I said, he’s a difference-maker for us, on special teams and offense. He can do it all, but he’s humble and he’s hard-working, and that’s his edge and that’s contagious.”

Quarterback Payton Thorne — who was also highly complimentary of the Western Kentucky football team — and running back Kenneth Walker also praised Reed’s play, specially his punt return touchdown.

“It’s great when you look up at the scoreboard and it’s 7-0 and you haven’t been on the field yet,” Thorne said. “That’s a credit to our special teams unit.”

Perhaps a more interesting tidbit from Saturday Night’s game, though, is that before the play happened, Walker and Thorne had a conversation about the ensuing punt return on the sideline, and Walker had a premonition.

“(Running back) Ken Walker was standing next to me, he said before the ball is snapped, ‘He’s gonna return this,’ so he called it, I’ll give him credit there,” Thorne said.

Walker later confirmed Thorne’s story.

“Before they even kicked it, I was over there (on the sideline), and I called out ‘He’s going to take this one to the crib,’” Walker said.

As for Reed himself, he said it felt a bit like “deja vu,” as he also returned a punt for a touchdown last week against Nebraska. “It’s all a blessing,” Reed said of his opportunities to make plays for the Spartans.

Reed then broke down the punt return play:

“I’m usually pretty calm when I’m back there (on punt return), I stay poised,” Reed said. “I actually love when kickers out-kick their coverage because that leaves a lot more space for me to make a move. I see one guy coming, he was running a little too fast so I just stuck my foot in the ground and got around him, and then found a lane. My unit made great blocks for me, so I just followed the blocks, everything else took care of itself.”

Michigan State is going to put a big emphasis on special teams with Tucker and special teams coach Ross Els at the helm. While most teams wouldn’t dare put their star wide receiver on kick and punt return due to injury risk, Tucker knows having a player of Reed’s caliber out there could be game-changing.

“I’m not sure why you wouldn’t want to have (Reed) back there because he can make plays back there, help with field position” Tucker said. “He wants to be back there. He wants to make plays, big plays. He’s certainly a weapon. We’re going to play our guys on special teams. Special teams is not one of those deals where it’s an afterthought. We spend a lot of time in meetings and on the field, we dedicate a lot of times to special teams because it’s a third of the game, and that’s part of our culture.”

While Reed was certainly impressive on special teams, as well as on offense with his four receptions for 127 yards and two total touchdowns, it was actually a different Michigan State wide receiver who stepped up against Western Kentucky. Jalen Nailor has had a bit of a quiet start to his redshirt junior campaign, but broke out against the Hilltoppers with eight catches for 128 yards (both led MSU on the night), including a 43-yard catch and run.

“(Nailor’s) a really good receiver, he’s a great route-runner, he’s got good hands,” Thorne said. “It’s nice to have him and Jayden (Reed) on the outside together and to be able to choose on sides like that. I thought he played well tonight, and it was good to give him the ball and get get that rolling a little bit.”

Nailor, who called Reed “special,” said the team’s motto for this game was “Start fast, finish strong.” He also said that some of the biggest reasons for MSU’s 5-0 start are the team’s chemistry and trust in the coaching staff philosophies and process.

As for Nailor’s big night — after going catchless last week versus Nebraska — he had this to say.

“(Thorne and I) had a conversation about (getting me more involved), but it was just what the game plan was, we were just sticking with the game plan,” Nailor said. “(Thorne) was just finding me a little bit more today. I’m just thankful fo the opportunities that he was giving me, and I praise the o-line and offense as a whole.”

While Michigan State did allow a lot of yards to Western Kentucky’s air raid offense — the Hilltoppers had 556 total yards of offense and Zappe threw for 488 yards — Tucker and his team expected that to happen, but were able to keep WKU out of the end zone for long periods of time throughout the game, forcing the Tops to settle for field goals on several occasions, while Michigan State’s offense was getting touchdowns.

Tucker thought it was good for his defense to go up against such a potent offense, and while he wants his team to limit the explosive plays moving forward, he thought his team did a good job of working within the game plan.

“It’s critical because oftentimes we play teams like this, you know they can move the ball and put stress on your defense, but it’s not about yards, it’s about points,” Tucker said. “Yards are one thing, but points are something else. To be able to go and hold them to some field goal attempts in the red zone was big for us because you end up trading field goals for touchdowns. Our offense was making plays, and special teams, and we were able to open up a lead, and that’s huge.”

Nickelback Michael Dowell and safety Angelo Grose agreed with Tucker’s assessment.

“Something really important for the defense all week, we emphasized on red zone efficiency,” Dowell said. “Just because they get down there doesn’t mean they gotta score a touchdown. If it’s a field goal, we see that as we took four points away once they got in the red zone...defensive efficiency in the red zone is something that we pride ourselves on.”

Grose — who has had a team-high 16 tackles — had a favorite phrase for the night, “keep chopping,” which is a team mantra under Tucker that essentially means fight through adversity and every situation. While Dowell said Western Kentucky’s high-tempo offense was a bit hard to handle at times, he said the MSU coaching staff did a great job preparing the team, and WKU didn’t show any looks that the Spartans weren’t expecting.

Getting back to Walker — who had 24 carries for 126 yards (5.3 yards per carry) and three touchdowns on the night — he had an interesting story. When asked if he thought his name would be mentioned in the Heisman Trophy race this year, Walker responded with this:

“Yes sir (I believe I can be mentioned in Heisman race), but I don’t really get into that much, though, but that is a dream of mine to win the Heisman,” Walker said. “I have that in my (personal) notes on like March 8, I put that down...I’ve always visualized winning the Heisman, but I never really put it down, and I think somebody came and talked with us and they told us to write our goals down so that we would see it every day. Looking at that every day just gives me motivation.”