Football has returned to East Lansing and the sea of Green and White supporters were welcomed back after two years to a treat in Michigan State’s 42-14 victory over Youngstown State on Saturday. It’s hard to understate the impact fans have on a game day experience, and Saturday afternoon proved that MSU fans were starving to come home.
“The athletic department worked really hard to set the stage for a great day and I’m proud of our football team for what we were able to get done today,” Michigan State head coach Mel Tucker said during his opening remarks following the game.
For the second week in a row, the Spartans came out with a bang — this time with some trickery involved that reminded you a bit of the golden years during the Mark Dantonio era — as flea-flicker pass from Payton Thorne to Jayden Reed went 75 yards for a touchdown on the opening play of the game. MSU fans are usually conditioned to expect the unexpected, but this was the first time Tucker and offensive coordinator/quarterbacks coach Jay Johnson reached into their the bag of tricks this season.
“We wanted to start fast,” Tucker said when asked about the first play from scrimmage. “It’s about execution. When things look good in practice, we feel like they should look good in the games. That’s the expectation, to be able to execute a play and take advantage of the opportunities you have out there.”
MSU was well balanced for the second week in a row, gaining 323 yards through the air and 272 yards on the ground. The Spartans were able to show a bevy of different formations and personnel units that the Penguins could rarely gain a read on.
“We want to have balance on offense,” Tucker said. “Jay (Johnson) is a very experienced play-caller. You always want to make sure you can get players the ball where they can make plays and be a factor.”
In the season opener versus Northwestern last week, Payton Thorne showed he is more than capable of being the starting quarterback for Michigan State, but lacked some explosive play ability (thanks to Kenneth Walker III not giving him a chance to do so). Today was quite the opposite, as Thorne proved he could make all the throws on the field. Even against FCS competition, Thorne’s confidence and athleticism looks like it will translate to big games down the road.
“Confidence comes from your preparation,” Thorne said, following the victory. “The way that we prepared these past two weeks have put us in a position to go out and play well.”
It also helps your quarterback when there is substantial talent around them, and MSU showed there is both serious talent and depth at the skill positions. Jayden Reed channeled his inner Randy Moss with a 181-yard, two-touchdown performance in which most of the production came in the first half.
“In my opinion, practices are harder than the game,” Reed said when asked about his performance. “I go out to practice and I’m gassed, and in the game, I feel much better.”
The preparation and execution in the first two weeks is an obvious testament to how well the coaches have been able to enlist a culture of winning.
Also breaking out today was sophomore running back Jordan Simmons, who’s flown under the radar in a crowded running backs room following a decent freshman campaign.
“Our team chemistry came together this year,” Simmons said when asked about the difference between this year and last year. “Even off the field, we all hang with each other, and on the field we all come together well.”
Simmons accounted for 121 yards on just 16 carries on Saturday, making the competition in the backfield a tad more interesting. When asked about making an impact given the opportunity, Simmons said:
“My time will come. When they put me in the game, I just have to do what I do...I don’t worry about the yards and carries, I just try to go out there and have a great performance.”
Defensively, MSU’s defensive unit remained stiff, limiting YSU to very little explosive plays and only one red zone opportunity.
However, just like in Week One, this was far from a perfect performance. A ridiculous interception from Xavier Henderson in the first quarter is the lone turnover the defense has forced so far this season. Youngstown State was able to move the ball in spurts on the Spartans’ defensive front, and ended up converting nearly half of its third down attempts, and three out of four fourth downs attempts.
“The opponents change, but the standard does not change,” Tucker said. “There’s a sense of urgency and hunger to get better. We haven’t reached our full potential yet. We have room to grow offensively, defensively and certainly on special teams..we have a process and we stick with the process.”
Tucker used the word “desperation” a few times during his postgame remarks to describe the team, which is very interesting. Usually, you think of desperation as a bad thing, but the Spartans embrace it as though there are extremely high expectations set in place. The urgency for this team to continuously improve is encouraging, and boy have they been fun to watch so far.