The Michigan State Spartans faced the Nebraska Cornhuskers this week in a hard-fought battle in Spartan Stadium. The Cornhuskers’ defense put significant pressure on the Spartans’ offense, giving Michigan State its first real late-game adversity this season. The Spartans trailed 20-13 in the final minutes, before a punt return touchdown by wide receiver Jayden Reed tied the game for the Spartans and eventually sent the game into overtime.
It wasn’t pretty by any means, but Michigan State earned a 23-20 victory over Nebraska, and a win in the Big Ten conference, and the Spartans are now off to the progran’s best start since the 2015 season. Before we turn our focus to the Western Kentucky Hilltoppers, let’s take a look at some takeaways from this past weekend’s game.
The Defense (again) Came Through
The Spartan defense has been one of the big question marks so far this season. The secondary started the season a bit rocky against Northwestern, giving up some big chunk plays, but at the same time, settled down immediately and managed to escape those drives without surrendering a lot of points. Against Miami, the defense established this “bend but don’t break” style even further, giving up first downs, but ultimately holding the Hurricanes to field goals rather than touchdowns on deep drives. The defensive line also stepped up, pressuring and bringing down quarterback D’Eriq King the entire game. The defense also played lights out in the final minutes, setting up a huge scoring surge for the Spartans that sealed the win.
Saturday against Nebraska, the defense made some mistakes and gave up quite a bit of yardage, but again stepped up when the unit needed to most. The Spartans got a key stop that forced the punt that Reed returned for a touchdown when the Cornhuskers had all the momentum. The defensive line also did a great job getting to quarterback Adrian Martinez, bringing him to the turf several times with seven sacks during the game. The defensive line also got to him quite a bit more than that, but just couldn’t seem to wrap him up. In overtime, MSU cornerback Chester Kimbrough intercepted a pass from Martinez and nearly returned it for the game-winning touchdown as well. The Spartan defense is improving each week, and it will be interesting to see just how good it gets in the next few weeks as the Spartans get into the thick of the Big Ten conference schedule.
The Offense Has Some Things to Work on
I’ve been pretty high on the Michigan State offense so far this season, and really I still am. However, Saturday was a ROUGH outing for the unit. Quarterback Payton Thorne looked a little out of sync this week, throwing his first interception of the season on a deep route that was just a tad under-thrown, and missing a few other throws on the night. Running back Kenneth Walker III, while he stepped up in overtime, seemed to be non-existent compared to his other performances — even against Youngstown State where he only rushed for 57 yards on seven carries.
Nebraska has a very talented defense that has greatly improved the last few weeks, holding the Oklahoma Sooners to just 23 points last week and keeping the Cornhuskers in that game to the end. The Nebraska defense also kept Nebraska in the game on Saturday, but the Spartans seemed to be fighting themselves a bit on offense. Some sloppy mistakes, missed blocks, key drops and questionable play-calling hindered MSU’s performance. The Spartans were just one-for-11 on third down attempts, which is just abysmal, and MSU managed to win the game, somehow, despite just a single yard of offense in the fourth quarter, and just 14 yards gained total in the second half.
Here's a stat for you: Michigan State had 14 net yards and zero first downs in the second half.— The Only Colors (@TheOnlyColors) September 26, 2021
Won the game.
I’m going to say this was an off game from the offense, and and not what should be expected from the Spartans moving forward. The offensive unit has looked outstanding through the first three games this season, and played the best defense it has faced so far against Nebraska. The good thing is that the game film has given the MSU players and coaches a lot to look at and improve upon this week, and I’m sure head coach Mel Tucker is going to have his guys prepared for next week.
Michigan State’s Special Teams Look Vastly Improved
A shining bright spot for the Spartans has been the team’s punter, Bryce Baringer. Baringer had some booming kicks on Saturday against the Huskers and flipped the field position time after time. He also currently ranks second in the country in yards per punt at 53.2. Fitting that Baringer had an outstanding game against Nebraska, considering the Spartans were honoring former punter, the late Mike Sadler, on Saturday night.
MSU punter Bryce Baringer ranks second nationally in yards per punt (53.2)— Colton Pouncy (@colton_pouncy) September 26, 2021
Kick and punt returns were also greatly improved this week. Jayden Reed had a few kick returns that were just a block or two away from breaking free and being returned for touchdowns. Keep an eye on that in the coming weeks. Obviously, Reed also returned a punt for the game-tying touchdown as well. Kick returns have been something the Spartans have been missing the last few years and could be a big weapon going forward, especially with Reed back to return. Coverage on kick and punt returns has also been a weak point of the Spartans have been lacking in the last few years, and that looks significantly better, especially on Saturday. For his efforts, Reed was named the Big Ten Special Teams Player of the Week.
The Spartans are 4-0, and 2-0 in conference play. Michigan State has a chance to finish the non-conference schedule undefeated for the first time in six years, with a game against Western Kentucky on Saturday night. That game is set for 7:30 Eastern time on the Big Ten Network.