The roller coaster that is college football has taken Michigan State’s program on an epic ride this season, as the Spartans have finally hit a bump in their magical season. The highs from last week’s rivalry win over Michigan are sure to last for a while, but with every great victory, there will be a team in seven days that presents different challenges.
Michigan State fell to Purdue by a final score of 40-29 on Saturday, and there aren't any excuses that can be made — the Boilermakers were simply the better team on this day.
Michigan State head coach Mel Tucker took the loss on the chin after the game.
“We’re going to own it,” Tucker said. “Give those guys credit where credit is due, they beat us. We need to execute better to be at a higher level...I don’t feel any different about our team now than I felt before the game.”
Despite the loss, the Spartans’ goals are still obtainable with only one loss and games looming against Ohio State and Penn State in November.
“This is a pretty aware football team,” Tucker said when asked about how the team handled its first loss of the season. “The guys have been through a lot together...We have a lot of football ahead of us and all of our goals are still there.”
It is important to note that most most of the players on this team haven’t came close to experiencing the same level of success as this season and are actually more adept to handling losses.
“I’ve been here for so long and lost a decent amount of times,” senior safety Xavier Henderson said. “I’ve been trying to tell these guys, I wouldn't trade it for anything. It made me a stronger person and a better football player.”
There are a few factors you could point to that ultimately decided the outcome, but none bigger than the Spartans’ inability to stop Purdue on pressure downs. The Boilermakers finished the game 11-for-18 on third-down conversions, but at one point were 10-for-13.
“It’s the story of the season,” Henderson said about the defense not being able to get off of the field on third down. “We just need to be better.”
Another glaring weakness that was exposed last week versus Michigan, and a couple other times throughout the season, is the MSU pass defense. Purdue quarterback Aidan O’Connell finished with 536 yards on 40 completions and David Bell caught 11 of those passes for 217 yards. Fans knew coming in that the unit was the weakest link, but Purdue’s pass-heavy attack presented obstacles that were hard to overcome — especially in a hostile road environment.
“Obviously the execution wasn’t nearly what we needed to have,” Tucker said. “We’re going to be sick when we watch this film. But shoot, we’re sick when we watch the film when we win.”
Offensively, Michigan State played pretty well and was able to keep the game close up until the end. In what may have been an “off” night for running back Kenneth Walker III, the Heisman candidate still finished with 146 yards and a touchdown. Quarterback Payton Thorne was under control for the majority of the game as well, making big plays when he had to, and throwing for 276 yards and two touchdowns with one interception.
A bright spot for Michigan State was the emergence of some unfamiliar offensive weapons who had a larger role due to the loss of Jalen Nailor. Tre Mostley, Maliq Carr and Montorie Foster all showed they can make plays and will need to moving forward if Nailor can’t return immediately.
“It’s just what they’ve been doing in practice,” Thorne said of the receivers group. “It’s nothing new to me, I’ve seen those guys make plays.”
The tone coming from Tucker and the players after the game still had an inkling of confidence, as the Spartans now have their work cut out for them. Thorne explained, “The process doesn't change. We take a look at the things we didn't do well and we’re going to refine those things.”
It’s possible suffering the first loss of the season could actually be a boost, as the team needs to identify how to get to that next level. Things won't get any easier with a road game in Columbus looming in two weeks, but MSU will first be home next Saturday versus Maryland in an absolute must-win to remain competitive for a conference championship. Being able to refine some of those issues from this game and play well next week would be a big step.
“What’s next — that’s what’s most important,” Tucker said.
Let’s not forget, the last time an 8-0 Michigan State team that lost its ninth game on the road ended up making the College Football Playoff. We’ll see if history can repeat itself.