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Michigan State Spartans outrun Northwestern Wildcats 38-21 in season opener, Game Recap

NCAA Football: Michigan State at Northwestern Jon Durr-USA TODAY Sports

The Michigan State Spartans kicked off the 2021 season in a Friday night cross-division showdown at Ryan Field against the Northwestern Wildcats. If second year head coach Mel Tucker was looking to make a statement to the Big Ten after a dismal debut season hampered by COVID-19 logistical problems, oh boy did he ever. The Spartans rode Wake Forest transfer Kenneth Walker III roughshod over the Wildcats, as he became the first Spartan since Le’Veon Bell to rush for more than 200 yards in a game (264 total on 23 attempts), and the first Spartan to score four rushing touchdowns since Edwin Baker in 2010.

In the 60th all-time meeting between the programs, Michigan State moved to 40-20 in the series over Northwestern after the 38-21 victory. The programs, after playing annually since 2016, will next face each other in 2024 in East Lansing. Northwestern rallied to make the it a two-possession game late in the fourth quarter, but could not eat any further into the huge lead MSU built in the first half, as the Spartans scored late to ensure no chance of a miracle comeback.

First Half

The Spartans opened the season with about as emphatic statement as you can make. After receiving the ball via touchback to open the game, MSU’s offense took the field and promptly took it to the house, as Payton Thorne handed the ball off to running back Walker who took off 75-yards for a touchdown on the opening play of the season. Matt Coghlin hit the extra point and just like that it was 7-0 MSU just 13 seconds into the game. The touchdown also represented more rushing touchdowns than MSU running backs scored in all of 2020.

The defense came out and looked good at stopping the run, but allowed NU to march down the field with the deep ball. After holding the Wildcats to just one yard on the opening run attempt, a false start pushed NU back five yards before an incomplete pass set up third-and-14. Hunter Johnson converted the first down with a 41-yard pass to Bryce Kirtz and put NU within field goal range at MSU’s 28-yard-line. The Spartans held firm and forced a 44-yard field goal attempt that went wide right.

After scoring in just one play in the opening drive, Michigan State marched down the field in a 10-play, 74-yard drive this time that ate 4:12 off the clock. Connor Heyward shined especially on this drive in the tight end role with a 16-yard pass on the second play of the drive, then a seven-yard pass later in the drive on third-and-seven where he fought through contact to get a first down. Jayden Reed also hauled in a monster catch earlier in the drive for 20 yards, and Walker set up a first-and-goal after a 23-yard run and punched it in on the next play from three yards out. Just like that the Spartans were up 14-0 and it still was not quite halfway through the first quarter.

The next five drives for both teams resulted in punts or turnovers on downs. In the case of MSU’s first punt attempt, however, the unit managed to pin NU at the one-yard-line. The defense held NU to just one first down and forced a punt that gave the Spartans the ball back at MSU’s 39-yard-line.

The initial pin at the one-yard-line and ensuing defensive possessions by Michigan State kept the offense with manageable field position, however. That was how two Spartans offensive drives later, MSU managed to hit the end zone again. This time the drive was also helped by a late out of bounds hit on Thorne by NU that put MSU at Northwestern’s 14-yard-line. That followed a Tre Mosley catch for 19 yards, and the hit on Thorne was after he scrambled for 16 yards. The next play saw a beautiful screen pass to Jordon Simmons for a 14-yard score with 9:45 left in the second quarter to make it MSU 21, NU 0.

Northwestern finally broke through late in the second quarter with a 15-play, 62-yard drive. It was a well defended drive for the most part with just two plays of more than five yards, but Johnson hit Charlie Mangieri for 25 yards in the middle of the drive and put the Wildcats inside the red zone. Eight plays later and two fourth down conversions resulted in the Wildcats finally punching it in from the one yard out to make it 21-7.

MSU fielded the ball with less than a minute left and tried to drive down and set up Coghlin for a late field goal. The offense managed to only set him up for a 60-yard attempt that fell far short. NU’s Brandon Joseph caught the attempt and returned it 12 yards before being tackled to send the teams into the locker room.

Overall, the Spartans dominated almost every category in this half — 279 total yards to 195, 175 rushing yards to 23, 15 first downs to just eight, and two-of-five on third-down conversions. NU did control time of possession (19:46 to 10:14) and passing yards, however, 172-104.

Second Half

Northwestern came out of the locker room fighting hard in its opening drive. However, despite a seven-play, 49-yard drive that set up a 38-yard field goal attempt, NU kicker Charlie Kuhbander missed his second field goal attempt of the night.

Michigan State responded with an 11-play, 80-yard drive of its own, however. This drive also featured a number of big yardage plays as Reed hauled in a 23 yard pass, Mosley an 11-yarder, and Jalen Nailor a 13-yarder. A personal foul by Jarret Horst negated some of Mosley’s a 26-yard catch, but a few plays later saw Walker running it in from three yards out for another Michigan State touchdown. Just like that it was 28-7, MSU.

The teams traded punts after that before Northwestern marched down the field in 16 plays, covering 69 yards and 7:52 of game play. As the scoreboard ticked into the fourth quarter, buoyed by two fourth-down conversions including a fourth-and-five, Johnson found Trey Pugh wide open in the end zone for a touchdown to make it a two score game with 11:17 left, NU 14-MSU 28. Johnson went 11-for-11 in passing on the drive.

Not to go quietly, MSU responded with a 10-play, 59-yard drive of its own that ate 5:13 off the clock. No surprise here, but the second play of the drive saw Walker rush for 50 yards to get MSU all the way to NU’s 25-yard-line.

The offense stalled out after that, especially hurt by a holding call against Tyler Hunt that pushed MSU back to NU’s 18-yard-line. Northwestern also managed one of its two sacks of the game when the Spartans were third-and-goal from the NU 15, which pushed MSU back to the NU 19-yard-line after a three-yard run from Harold Joiner III on the previous play. Coghlin struck home from 37 yards on the next play, however, to stretch Michigan State’s lead back to three scores at 31-14.

After the defense forced NU to punt on a three-and-out that netted -13 yards, disaster finally struck for MSU in the turnover column despite excellent field position at the NU 47-yard-line. On the opening play of the drive, a hard hit to Joiner resulted in a fumble recovered by NU. While the play was reviewed for both targeting and to determine if the runner’s knee was down, the defender made a legal tackle on a non-defenseless player and no camera angle was available that could overturn the rule on the field of a fumble, and thus it was NU ball from its own 48-yard-line. Just eight plays, 61 yards, and 2:20 of game clock later the Wildcats punched it in to make the score 31-21.

Anybody out there nervous on the Spartan sideline? Well, if you were, you clearly need to get used to having Walker on the roster. NU attempted an onside kick, but the Spartans recovered it at the MSU 48. After Reed converted a 12-yard pass for a first down on the second play of the drive, Walker ripped off a 30-yard run to set MSU up at the NU six-yard-line. After signaling to the sideline he wanted to stay in, Walker was handed the ball again and marched it in for his fourth score of the game to make it 38-21 MSU with just 1:29 left on the clock.

NU essentially admitted defeat and ran time off the clock with consecutive rushing attempts to end the game. Cue up the band (if they would have been there), because that is a “Victory for MSU!” The Spartans move to 1-0 (1-0 Big Ten) and pick up a key early victory as the search for bowl eligibility begins.

There were a number of promising signs in the opener including run blocking by the offensive line, some huge catches by the receivers, and a more aggressive offensive game plan than fans may have been used to. MSU out-gained NU with 511 total yards of offense compared to just 400 for the Wildcats. In rushing, Michigan State racked up 326 yards to NU’s 117, but the Wildcats did finish almost 100 yards ahead in passing, finishing with 283 yards to MSU’s 185. The Spartans had five penalties for 50 yards, went four-for-10 on third-down conversions, converted five-for-five in the red zone and averaged 8.1 yards per play.

However, the secondary was cause for concern on a number of big plays, Thorne at times seemed incapable of throwing the ball deep to accurately connect with receivers, and nobody is sure yet how to judge a huge win over a retooled Northwestern squad. The Spartans gave up three-for-five fourth-down conversions by NU, and the Wildcats controlled time of possession 38:00-22:00.

That is not to be a downer, though. Michigan State did hold NU to just seven-for-20 on third-down conversions, managed three sacks for 18 yards, and had seven tackles for a loss of 29 yards. Overall, this was a huge win and had so much promise in the season opener for fans to get excited about.

Michigan State hosts Youngstown State next Saturday, Sept. 11 before traveling for a tough road test at Miami on Sept. 18. For now, Michigan State is 1-0 and tied atop the Big Ten East standings with Ohio State headed into the bulk of game action for the rest of the league tomorrow.