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Michigan State Football: 5 thoughts on the Spartans’ 10-win season

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It’s still hard to frame Michigan State’s 10-win season, but Mel Tucker has something cooking in East Lansing.

NCAA Football: Penn State at Michigan State Raj Mehta-USA TODAY Sports

Headed straight from Colorado, plenty were unsure of how Michigan State football head coach Mel Tucker would perform. It’s a rebuild, so expectations were not high. His record in a single season at Colorado was an unimpressive 5-7, but the Spartans brought him aboard because of his potential.

Tucker was a graduate assistant for Michigan State under Nick Saban from 1997 through 1998. He was a defensive coordinator and defensive backs coach for several teams including Georgia, Ohio State, LSU, the NFL’s Cleveland Browns, Jacksonville Jaguars (including a stint as interim head coach there) and Chicago Bears. He won a national championship as a defensive backs coach for Ohio State in 2002 and as an assistant head coach/defensive backs coach for Alabama in 2015.

His experience as a coordinator was there, it’s why Colorado hired him as a head coach. It’s precisely why Michigan State did as well.

If in the preseason you told me that Michigan State would be sitting here in the first week of December with the same record as Ohio State, I’d tell you you’re nuts. That’s reality.

After sitting on top of cloud nine since MSU defeated Penn State to close out the season, all of those thoughts have culminated into five big ones, and this is where we can reflect on the Spartans’ 10-win season.

1. Michigan State exceeded every expectation imaginable

“According to ESPN’s ‘matchup predictor,’ Michigan State is poised for a great season, or at least one that most didn’t anticipate. Of course, these are just estimates based on ESPN’s algorithm but may be worth considering since it’s a 6-6 season in Mel Tucker’s first full year, with a win against state rival Michigan.”

That’s what I wrote as a preview to Michigan State’s football season. Boy was I wrong.

Some analysts had the Spartans going with four or five wins, never more than seven, while many betting sites set the over/under win total at just 4.5 wins. Northwestern was a team I thought Michigan State would surely lose to. After Kenneth Walker III opened the game with a 75-yard touchdown run, those expectations started to change.

It wasn’t until Michigan State played Nebraska that I began to expect a nine-win season. The Spartans had knocked No. 24 Miami off of the schedule, already played Northwestern (and played the Wildcats very well), and passed a tough test by Nebraska.

It was assumed that the Spartans would get to 7-0 before Michigan. Western Kentucky, Rutgers and Indiana were left on the schedule, all worse opponents than any MSU had played. However, Michigan, Ohio State and Penn State were left, all opponents that would fit the bill for a loss.

Not only did Michigan State beat in-state rival Michigan, but the Spartans sent Penn State home with a loss as well. The Ohio State game did not go well for MSU, but it doesn’t take away from the incredible job this team did all season long.

I’m no mathematician, but I’m pretty sure 10 wins is better than six (or less).

2. Kenneth Walker III is a rare breed

It’s hard to foresee an NFL Draft where Kenneth Walker III doesn’t go in the first three rounds. It’s beyond just that he led all Power Five running backs in rushing yards and scored a ton of touchdowns. His ability to make something out of nothing isn’t a skill that can be taught.

Walker has some of the best vision from a running back that I have ever seen. He ran for 1,636 yards this season with 18 touchdowns. He had 4.6 yards per attempt and an average of 6.2 yards.

It goes beyond stats. His five-rushing touchdown performance against Michigan was a Heisman moment. For a program without a player to finish in the top-four in Heisman voting since 1963, this was a big deal.

After Walker’s 25-yard performance against the Buckeyes, it seems as though his Heisman hopes have gone by the wayside. Alabama quarterback Bryce Young seems like the favorite for now, especially if his team beats Georgia in the SEC title game this week.

All Heisman favorites have struggled, though. Walker underperformed (and didn’t get many opportunities) against Ohio State, while the Buckeyes’ freshman quarterback C.J. Stroud struggled in his game against Michigan, and Young has had a few off weeks. Yet, Young threw for 600 yards against Arkansas, arguably a better team than Michigan State is.

It’s yet to be determined if Walker’s performance is enough to win him the Heisman Trophy, but he should finish in the top-four — we’ll see.

3. Payton Thorne is the guy

We talk a lot about Walker having one of the best individual seasons in program history. It’s true. But the way that Payton Thorne has shown the ability to compete and put MSU in the best position to win is very exciting.

In Thorne’s first start, during the 2020 regular season against Penn State, he threw for 325 yards and three touchdowns. That seemed like Michigan State’s starter for the 2021 season, and he eventually earned that role.

The Spartans brought in a grad transfer from Temple, Anthony Russo. All that did was increase Thorne’s competitive bar. He was publicly announced as the starting quarterback in pregame warmups prior to the Northwestern game, and the decision was never doubted.

Thorne finished the 2021 regular season with 2,886 passing yards, 24 touchdowns and just nine interceptions. His passer rating was more than 150. One Pro Football Focus measure puts Thorne second in the Big Ten in big-time throw percentage.

If Walker declares for the NFL Draft, the Spartans will need to get a key running back threat to help Thorne open up the pass next season — the team may have already found that in Wisconsin transfer Jalen Berger.

4. Michigan State’s defense was bad, but it remains fixable

When we talk about how bad Michigan State’s defense was, most of that conversation circles around the Spartans ranking dead last in the country in pass defense: 337.7 yards allowed per game. That’s not good.

For the Spartans, there is solace in the fact that head coach Mel Tucker is defensive-minded. Pair that with Scottie Hazelton and those are two of the best defensive minds in college football.

MSU’s defense will be better next year, but the bar is the lowest it could possibly be.

Let’s take a look at some stats beyond the 337.7 passing yards allowed per game. Opponents average 46 pass attempts per game against the Spartans. Obviously, that’s the game plan against Michigan State.

Despite having no rushing attack, Purdue quarterback Aidan O’Connell was 40-for-54 for 536 yards with three touchdowns and no interceptions. Purdue ran the ball for 58 yards on 31 attempts. The Boilermakers ran screens, drag routes, deep passes, anything they could do against the Spartans, who couldn’t stop the pass even though that is all Purdue did.

Michigan, a team that relies deeply on running the ball, had 406 passing yards. Junior quarterback Cade McNamara was 28-for-44 with 383 passing yards and two touchdowns, while freshman J.J. McCarthy completed three of four passes for 23 yards and a touchdown. The Wolverines ran the ball as well, ultimately picking up 146 yards on the ground with Hassan Haskins and Blake Corum.

The questionable decision to deploy the “bend-don’t-break” defensive strategy may have been the Spartans’ best chance to win — and it wasn’t necessarily the team’s philosophy, but just what seemed to happen game in game out, as the Spartans allowed a lot of yards, but often tightened up in the red zone. Against Michigan, the Spartans forced four field goals. Likewise, the Spartans’ offense didn’t settle for any field goals. That was the story of the game and it resulted in a win.

The defense’s lowest point was against Purdue. In the Purdue game, cornerbacks and safeties were falling down in man coverage, missing assignments. It was a sloppy game from a team that had beaten Michigan a week prior.

Let’s discuss the Ohio State performance. Freshman quarterback C.J. Stroud threw for six touchdowns, an unreal number. He was also 32-for-35 with 432 passing yards, and those numbers are only from the first 40 minutes, when Stroud was replaced with backup quarterback Kyle McCord.

McCord, also a freshman, complted four of eight passes with 17 yards and one interception.

On the contrary, Michigan State’s rush defense is not bad, actually it’s pretty good. Jacub Panasiuk, Jacob Slade and Simeon Barrow are large reasons for that. Michigan State ranks 16th in rushing yards allowed per game (117.3).

As mentioned, MSU has also been big in the red zone. Only 47 percent of opponent red zone attempts have resulted in touchdowns, 33 percent are field goals. That’s exactly what one would expect from bend-don’t-break.

5. Don’t expect a 10-win season next year

Michigan State finishing the season with 10 wins was not expected, or at the very least, anticipated. Remember, 6-6 (at best) was the expectation. The Spartans are 10-2.

The Spartans were also one of college football’s top betting favorites this season, going 9-3 against the spread. They did not win by a wide enough margin against Nebraska, getting blasted by Ohio State and falling to Purdue.

That may not be the case in 2022, as the Spartans will be favored more heavily, while losing several starters. The defense may be better, but the offense could stumble a bit.

Fans will enjoy the sweetness of having 10 wins this season, but it’s very possible that the Spartans could end up with eight next year. Michigan State could lose either Jayden Reed or Jalen Nailor to the NFL Draft, may lose Heisman candidate Kenneth Walker III and may lose several others. Seniors likely leaving the team include tight end/H-back Connor Heyward, Panisiuk, and safety Xavier Henderson.

A nine or 10-win season will still be worth celebrating, but it will not be as sweet. Even if there is no improvement in the win column, it’s easy to see that the trajectory for Michigan State football is headed to high places.

Mel Tucker is the Big Ten Coach of the Year in year two. The Spartans have a Heisman candidate in Walker. Their quarterback for the next one or two (or even three) seasons is Thorne. However you frame the Spartans’ 2021 season, 10 wins sounds like a fairytale. It’s about to get better in the future.