The Land Grant Trophy is back in East Lansing after the Michigan State Spartans beat the Penn State Nittany Lions by a final score 30-27 in Spartan Stadium on senior day. It was a hard-fought battle for both teams, with heavy snowfall through most of the game, but the Spartans ultimately came out on top to finish the regular season with a 10-2 record and in third place in the Big Ten East in Mel Tucker’s second season as head coach of the Spartans, and his first full 12-game season in East Lansing.
Payton Thorne and Jayden Reed had big performances in the win, showcasing the special connection that they’ve developed through years of playing together (since middle school, in case you haven’t heard that yet). Thorne finished the day with 268 yards, two touchdowns and an interception, which was the one blemish on a very strong performance. He placed multiple throws in some great spots, primarily the one that went for a touchdown to Reed on fourth-down-and-15 that put the spartans up 30-20 late in the game. The catch itself from Reed was impressive as well.
Kenneth Walker III had a strong performance in what might be his final game in Spartan Stadium, rushing for 138 yards and a touchdown on 4.6 yards per carry. After being pulled from the blowout loss to the Buckeyes a week ago when the game was out of reach, it was a nice bounce-back performance, and Walker could find himself in New York for the Heisman Trophy ceremony pretty soon.
Let’s dive into some of the takeaways from the win.
Thorne could be an all-time great for the Spartans
Let me start by saying I’ve been a fan of Payton Thorne since we saw glimpses of him when he came in for Rocky Lombardi down the stretch in 2020. I’ve thought there was something there that could be special for the Spartans. Then, this year, we saw a lot more of it. Thorne is two touchdowns away from becoming the single-season record holder for touchdown passes for the Michigan State, which he could very well break in the bowl game. In a year where a lot of the spotlight has (rightfully so) been on Kenneth Walker III’s Heisman campaign, Thorne has quietly had a very good year.
The best part is Thorne is only a redshirt sophomore. As he continues to develop and gain experience, he could very well become an all-time great quarterback at Michigan State. It will be important that he steps up next year, especially considering the Spartans will likely not have Walker next year. We saw some big-time throws from Thorne on Saturday in some less than ideal conditions, which gives me confidence that he’ll be ready to take full control of the offense next season and have a really strong year.
Mel Tucker deserves his Big Ten Coach of the Year nod, and national recognition as well
I’ve said this earlier in the season, but now that we’re fully through the regular season it still holds true. Mel Tucker inherited a program that was stumbling toward irrelevancy, struggling to keep up in recruiting, and in just his second season, has gotten MSU up to 10-2 after going 2-5 in 2020. He’s gotten the Spartans a Heisman contender at running back in Walker, and was playing for a conference championship in November. Now, the Spartans fell short of that championship goal, but to suddenly be back in that conversation is something nobody saw coming this year.
Mel Tucker vastly exceeded the expectations many had for the Michigan State this season. The Spartans were picked to finish last in the division during the preseason, and some thought they might have been at the bottom of the FBS as well. When the context of preseason expectations meets the results of the season, I’m not sure there is anybody who would deserve it more than Mel Tucker. For the job he did, Tucker was named Big Ten Coach of the Year by both the coaches and media, and he should get consideration on a national level as well.
Spartans are in a great position for the future
My final takeaway, and biggest, in my opinion, is the Spartans are in a really great position for the future. Recruiting has been rejuvenated, there’s optimism and belief in the culture that Tucker is building in East Lansing, and if Michigan’s upset of Ohio State on Saturday was any indication, then perhaps the gap between Ohio State and the rest of the Big Ten wasn’t as large as we really thought. The Spartans were hit with the injury bug at the worst possible time and lost two of their last four games. Maybe a healthy MSU squad makes a real run at the conference title? But, we’ll never know. The Spartans still finished 10-2 and are likely headed to a New Year’s Six bowl barring any shocking championship weekend results.
There’s lots of work to do in the offseason, but there’s reason to believe that the Spartans could be closer to a run than we think. It may not be next season, it may not be the season after that, but Tucker is building something special in East Lansing, and Michigan State is in a great position moving forward.