How about those Michigan State Spartans?
After coming back from being down 16 points in the third quarter on Saturday, the Spartans defeated the rival Michigan Wolverines 37-33 in an epic showdown on national television. The eyes of the entire college football world were on Spartan Stadium for the afternoon with both ESPN’s College Gameday and FOX’s Big Noon Kickoff in East Lansing, and Mel Tucker and company made the most of it. Tucker is now the only head coach in Michigan State history to beat Michigan in his first two attempts as head coach. It was a gritty, hard-fought win and showed the Spartans really do mean business this year, and has catapulted MSU into the Big Ten title conversation.
Now, with some time to come down from the excitement of Saturday and some time to reflect, let’s get into the takeaways from the game.
Kenneth Walker III is a legitimate Heisman contender...if he wasn’t already
Running back Kenneth Walker III has had his ups and downs this season — mostly ups — but has had a couple lackluster performances in the previous few weeks, which was perhaps starting to put the brakes on the Heisman Trophy conversation a bit. After Saturday, there are no doubts. Walker exploded again against a very strong Wolverine defense, totaling 197 yards on 23 carries (8.6 yards per carry), and scored all five of the Spartans’ touchdowns. His five touchdowns actually are the most a player has scored against the Wolverines in a single game in history.
Walker’s performance on Saturday showed he is still very much a Heisman contender, but I truly believe his performance was so outstanding that it could even place him in the front of the conversation — if he finishes the season out strongly. The Wolverines have a very talented defense, and one of the best that the Spartans will play all year, and Walker torched them like it was nothing. And it didn’t go unrecognized. Walker earned both the Walter Camp Offensive Player of the Week award, as well as the Big Ten Offensive Player of the Week for the performance. It’s the second time he’s earned the Big Ten Player of the Week thaward this season.
The Spartans will not quit
One of the biggest takeaways from Saturday’s win is the Spartans just will not quit. Halfway through the third quarter, the Wolverines scored to take a 30-14 lead and had seemingly all the momentum. The stadium lost all its energy, and it seemed MSU was one more mismanaged offensive drive away from Spartans fans flooding out of the stadium.
But, Michigan State continued to fight, and after a fourth-down conversion set the Spartans up on the Michigan one-yard line, Walker punched it in and suddenly there was hope for MSU. Quarterback Payton Thorne delivered a strike to Tre Mosely for the two-point conversion and the Spartans were back in the game, trailing 30-22 with a little more than a quarter left to play. From then on, Michigan State played some of its best football all year, and eventually completed the comeback and won the battle for the Paul Bunyan Trophy for the second-straight year. It showed that the Spartans weren’t going to back down, even though the game was starting to slip away from them.
That relentless mentality is one Tucker has instilled from day one in East Lansing and has really been present in every game this year. Moving forward, that attitude is going to be huge as the Spartans try and challenge Ohio State for the East Division title down the stretch.
Michigan State could make some noise down the stretch
Speaking of East Division titles, the Spartans could be a real threat in the East — and the Big Ten Conference as a whole — in these last few games. Michigan State is the only undefeated team left in the Big Ten and ranks fifth in the AP Top-25 Poll this week, coming in one spot above the East Division favorites in Ohio State. The craziest part about what’s happening is I still don’t believe the Spartans have played their best football yet — and Tucker has said that as well.
MSU certainly came close, though. The second half of Saturday’s game was a sign of where the Spartans can be this year. But, mistakes have haunted MSU in quite a few games this year. Early turnovers, missed blocks, and other mistakes nearly turned Saturday's game into a blowout loss. If the Spartans can limit mistakes and play as they did in the second half on Saturday in their remaining four games, especially during their trip to Columbus, there is a real chance Michigan State could surprise some people by the end of the season.
Young players continue to make plays
One staple of Tucker’s first two seasons in East Lansing has been his willingness to play younger players, and that continued on Saturday. In 2020, wide receiver Ricky White exploded against Michigan and played a big role in their victory last season. Jordon Simmons also got plenty of carries in last year’s game as a true freshman. This year, younger players have really stepped up and made some big-time plays for the Spartans. True freshman cornerback Charles Brantley made the biggest play of the year when he secured the game-sealing interception in the final minute of the fourth quarter on Saturday.
In a big matchup, many coaches would probably rely on veteran players in a late-game, need-a-stop type of situation, but Tucker trusted his younger players to stay out there and help win the game, and clearly, it worked. Continuing to play younger players is going to be valuable in many aspects, and will help build a solid core of talented veteran players over the next few years, and also help in recruiting. If talented recruits continue to see Tucker willing to play freshmen right away, it will obviously greatly help MSU in landing some bigger recruits looking to play right away.
Mel Tucker deserves to win Coach of the Year
I’ve mentioned this before, but now it’s really, REALLY true. Tucker, in year two, fresh off a 2-5 season, has his Spartans undefeated through eight games and ranked in the top-five nationally — the first time for MSU since 2015. He has his team poised for a run at a Big Ten title, and just beat a rival ranked in the top-10 on a national stage. He’s absolutely turned this program around in just an offseason and now has doubled the projected win total the Spartans were projected to have before the start of the season. Tucker has done a tremendous job this season in turning things around, and regardless of how these last four games go or if Michigan State makes it to Indianapolis, he absolutely should be the national Coach of the Year.
There’s some very important football left to be played for the Spartans, and a lot of hype surrounding them now. These next two games are going to be the “handle business” portion of the season. Michigan State is in a really great spot entering November and are tied for first place in the Big Ten East. But, they can’t let up now. If the Spartans are 10-0 heading into their matchup with the Buckeyes, we could be in for a really entertaining finish to the regular season.
But first, it all starts on Saturday against Purdue — a team with an incredibly tough defense. Kickoff for that matchup is set for 3:30 p.m. Eastern Time and will air on ABC.