The Michigan State Spartans ended the 2021 regular season with a home matchup against the Penn State Nittany Lions at a snowy Spartan Stadium. The Spartans won by a final score of 30-27 and earned back the Land Grant Trophy in the process. MSU finishes the regular season with a 10-2 record, and 7-2 mark in Big Ten play. Penn State fell to 7-5 and 4-5 in conference play.
Michigan State received the ball to start the game and wasted no time getting on the scoreboard. Quarterback Payton Thorne hit wide receiver Montorie Foster for a 13-yard gain on the first play from scrimmage. A few plays later, Thorne found tight end Maliq Carr for a 40-yard gain. The drive was capped off by a two-yard touchdown run by Kenneth Walker III and Michigan State led 7-0.
Penn State then got the ball for the first time, but the Michigan State defense quickly forced a three-and-out. On the first play of the Spartans’ next drive, Walker took a handoff for a 35-yard gain, and then followed that up with a 15-yard scamper. Next, Thorne found Jayden Reed for a gain of 14 yards, and later in the drive, a gain of 23 yards. The drive eventually ended on a nine-yard strike from Thorne to Tre Mosley in the end zone, making the score 14-0 in the Spartans’ favor.
The Nittany Lions would answer, though. On Penn State’s second drive, Sean Clifford found Brenton Strange and Jahan Dotson for big gains of 21 yards and 18 yards, respectively. Clifford and Dotson would then connect in the end zone from 27 yards out, cutting Michigan State’s lead in half, at 14-7.
The teams would then trade punts for the next few possessions before Penn State tied the score. Clifford would find Dotson once again for another touchdown, this time from 30 yards out. After starting out with good field position on MSU’s 46-yard-line, the drive took the Nittany Lions just 23 seconds, and the scoreboard was knotted up at 14-14.
Michigan State would then put together a long, 15-play, 70-yard drive that took 6:12 off the clock and ended in a field goal. A banged-up Matt Coghlin drilled the short field goal attempt from 22-yards out and MSU regained the lead at 17-14.
Penn State would drive down the field on its next possession, but did not add any points. Keyvone Lee started the drive out with a 33-yard gain, and the Nittany Lions eventually got down to Michigan State’s nine-yard-line before stalling. Penn State’s Jordan Stout would miss a 27-yard field goal in the snowy conditions, and the score remained 17-14 in MSU’s favor at halftime.
The Nittany Lions received the second half kickoff, but were eventually forced to punt. Three plays into the Spartans’ next possession, Thorne threw an interception to Penn State’s Daequan Hardy, and Hardy returned it 17 yards for a touchdown. Stout missed the extra point, but PSU regained the lead at 20-17.
Thorne and the Spartans responded on the next drive. Walker got things going with a 27-yard rush on the first play of the drive. Later, Thorne would convert on a fourth-and-three quarterback keeper play. A few plays after that, Reed would catch a 21-yard pass on third-and-12. Walker would score on the next play, but it was called back for holding on Kevin Jarvis. Later in the drive, Penn State’s Joey Porter Jr. was flagged for pass interference in the end zone. Thorne would eventually score on a quarterback sneak from one yard out. Evan Johnson, in for Coghlin, missed the extra point. The score was now Michigan State 23, Penn State 20.
On the next possession, Penn State would drive all the way down to Michigan State’s 16-yard-line. The Nittany Lions went for it on fourth-and-one, but Lee was stopped by MSU’s Noah Harvey short of the first-down marker. The Spartans took over with 12:43 to play in the fourth quarter, but eventually stalled out. Bryce Baringer punted it just 24 yards and Penn State took over at its own 40-yard-line.
Next, it was the Michigan State defense that came up with a play. On third-and-one, Lee took the handoff, but Jacob Slade’s penetration made Lee hesitate, and Cal Haladay forced a fumble, which was recovered by Drew Beesley. MSU took over at Penn State’s 48-yard-line.
The Spartans would take advantage of the turnover. On the third play of the drive, Thorne found Connor Heyward for a 25-yard gain. A couple plays later, Reed would lose eight yards on a rushing attempt, and Thorne’s next pass was incomplete. This brought up a fourth-and-15 from the Penn State’s 20-yard-line. But with bad weather conditions and Coghlin dealing with an injury, head coach Mel Tucker elected to go for it — and it paid off. Thorne found Reed on a beautiful 20-yard throw, and it was an even better catch by Reed. Michigan State took the momentum, and a 10-point lead, 30-20, with just 5:10 left to play in the game.
The Spartans weren’t down yet. On the ensuing kickoff, true freshman linebacker Ma’a Gaoteote forced a fumble, and it was recovered by Michigan State’s Justin White. MSU would get down to Penn State’s 22-yard-line, but once again declined the field goal, and Walker was stopped on fourth-and-three.
Penn State was in desperation mode with about four minutes to play, but made things interesting. After being sacked by former running back turned defensive end Brandon Wright on third down, Clifford somehow escaped pressure and converted a fourth-and-24 play on a 25-yard completion to Strange. The Nittany Lions would go on to score, as Clifford found Parker Washington for a 15-yard touchdown. The extra point was good, and Michigan State’s lead was down to three points at 30-27.
Michigan State would recover the onside kick and ice the game, as the score went final at 30-27 in the Spartans’ favor.
Thorne completed 19 of 30 passes (63.3 percent) for 268 yards, with two passing touchdowns and an interception. He added 39 rushing yards and a score on the ground as well. Walker finished with 138 yards on 30 carries (4.6 yards per carry) and a touchdown. Reed led the team in receiving with six catches for 89 yards and a touchdown.
Michigan State recorded four sacks on the day, with Wright, Haladay, Beesley, Jacub Panasiuk and Maverick Hansen all getting credit for at least a partial sack.
Also, this one-handed catch in the snow by Montorie Foster deserves another look:
Michigan State gets to 10 wins for the first time since 2017 (and the first time during the regular season since 2015). Tucker becomes the fastest head coach to get to 10 wins in a single season, doing so in just his second season (Mark Dantonio first accomplished this feat in his fourth season). Additionally, the Spartans finished the season undefeated at home, won all three rivalry trophies, will likely be playing in a New Year’s Six bowl (although, that isn’t guaranteed just yet) and has a Doak Walker Award finalist and potential Heisman Trophy Award finalist in Walker — not bad for a team picked to finish dead last in the Big Ten east during the preseason.