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Michigan State Football: Takeaways from the loss to Purdue

Michigan State suffered its first loss of the season in West Lafayette, falling 40-29 to Purdue.

NCAA Football: Michigan State at Purdue Trevor Ruszkowski-USA TODAY Sports

Mel Tucker’s Michigan State Spartans fell to the Purdue Boilermakers by a final score of 40-29 on Saturday, marking the first loss for MSU this season after an impressive 8-0 start, and the second time the Boilermakers have upset a top-five team this season. It was an ugly game from start to finish for the Spartans, despite a late surge that cut the deficit to one score before the Boilermakers kicked the game-sealing field goal.

The defense imploded this week and never really looked like itself. Even when the Spartans have been down in previous games, or had their backs against the wall, they never looked as lost as they did on multiple plays this week. The Spartans allowed 536 passing yards to the Boilermakers, which is the second-most allowed by a Spartan defense ever. It’s also the highest the Spartans have allowed since allowing 488 yards through the air against Western Kentucky earlier this season. Michigan State also continued to struggle with penalties on Saturday, with six penalties for 70 yards, including one that negated a great punt that had pinned the Boilermakers deep in their own territory and instead handed them great field position.

It was just ugly all around. Let’s dive into the takeaways.

Mistakes finally catch up to the Spartans

Throughout this entire 8-0 run to open the season, the Spartans managed to escape multiple close games with wins, despite never really playing their best football. The Spartans have battled penalties and minor mistakes all season, and this loss exposed what happens when they’re not dealt with. Miscommunication on defense and missed tackles led to explosive plays by Purdue and set up scores when Michigan State needed stops.

Coming off a big win, especially a double-digit comeback against an undefeated in-state rival, many expected the Spartans to be looking past the Boilermakers. While I don’t think this was necessarily the case, it's hard to deny that the Spartans weren’t playing up to their capabilities on Saturday. MSU still has a lot to play for with just one loss and a big matchup with the Ohio State Buckeyes in just a couple of weeks (but has to deal with Maryland first), but have plenty to work on until then if the Spartans truly want to make a run at the conference championship.

Jalen Nailor’s absence was felt

The Spartans absolutely felt the effect of having wide receiver Jalen Nailor out this week. Don’t get me wrong, Tre Mosley and Montorie Foster did a great job in his absence. However, Nailor’s speed, athleticism and playmaking ability were missed by the Michigan State offense. I think back to a double reverse the Spartans ran on Saturday, which is one play Nailor has excelled at during his career. Mosley just couldn’t get the edge on the Purdue defenders, and it turned into a minimal gain. Nailor can take those types of plays and turn them into larger gains, even if they're not monumental. He did on the Spartans’ game-sealing touchdown against Purdue in 2018.

Nailor wasn’t the only Spartan out with injury this week either. It was revealed just before kickoff that offensive tackle Jarrett Horst didn’t make the trip along with Nailor. Kicker Matt Coghlin was scratched from the lineup as well just before the game, and true freshman kicker Stephen Rusnak stepped in in his absence but missed his one field goal attempt. Also, linebacker Cal Haladay played this week’s game with a cast on his hand. Injuries, while not the reason the Spartans lost to the Boilermakers, certainly did not do MSU any favors this game. Getting Nailor back, especially, will be key down the stretch, but it’s unclear how long he will actually be sidelined.

Spartans are down, but not out

This loss really stinks. The Spartans were rolling — coming off a big win against Michigan a week ago and ranked in the top-five in both the AP top-25 and the College Football Playoff rankings — and MSU was really making a push as we entered the biggest month of the year. The loss on Saturday was a gut punch and a reality check for a lot of people’s expectations for the Michigan State. The Spartans weren’t ever supposed to be here, though. It’s year two of Mel Tucker, and to even have the start the Spartans did was incredible. A little over two months ago, MSU fans could’ve told you we’d be happy with six wins and a bowl game.

The good news is the Spartans aren’t out of it yet. Yes, the loss sucked. It hurt to watch. It was rough. But, Michigan State still controls its own destiny in the Big Ten and College Football Playoff. If the Spartans win out, they’re likely headed to the CFP, and Tucker continues his Coach of the Year Campaign. In 2015, the Spartans suffered a heartbreaker on the road to the Nebraska Cornhuskers, but later rolled into Columbus with two backup quarterbacks and walked out with a win, and two week later, were headed to Indianapolis. While I’m not saying it will or won’t happen, crazier things have happened before and there’s no need to act like the sky is falling after one loss, especially with the context of this season for the Spartans.

Michigan State will try and get back on track next week against the Maryland Terrapins. It’ll be Tucker’s first game against the Terrapins after both of last year’s matchups were canceled due to COVID-19 issues. The kickoff is set for 4 p.m. Eastern time and the game will air on FOX.