The Michigan State Spartans came into Friday night’s matchup against the Northwestern Wildcats in Evanston as three-point underdog, but walked out of Ryan Field with a 38-21 victory. In fact, Michigan State never trailed after jumping out to an early 21-0 lead.
MSU didn’t tip its hand leading up to the game as to who would start at quarterback, but redshirt sophomore Payton Thorne drew the start, and played efficient football. He completed 15 of 26 passes for 185 yards, with one touchdown and zero turnovers.
While head coach Mel Tucker did not let the public know if Thorne won the starting job over Temple graduate transfer Anthony Russo prior to the game, Thorne told the media he found out he would be starting last Thursday.
Thorne says “he just put his head down and went to work” to win the starting job.— The Only Colors (@TheOnlyColors) September 4, 2021
“I just was able to put my head down and go to work,” Thorne said about winning the starting quarterback job. “Fortunately, the coaches saw something in me that they thought could produce for our offense. So, I’m happy with the decision, obviously, and I can’t wait to keep rolling.”
While Thorne did a great job leading drives, taking care of the football and making smart decisions, he didn’t explode by any means. When asked about his performance, Thorne was honest.
“I thought I played OK, honestly,” Thorne said. “Obviously, I’m really happy about the win. I definitely missed a few things that we could’ve capitalized on that I think could have made the game a little bit larger of a margin. So, we definitely got a lot to work on still, and we’re going to do that this week.”
Speaking of exploding, Wake Forest transfer running back Kenneth Walker III showed just why he was so coveted in the transfer portal — taking his first ever touch as a Spartan (and the first play of the game) into the end zone from 75 yards out. Walker would score four total touchdowns throughout the night, and he became the first Michigan State player to rush for 200 yards since Le’Veon Bell in 2012.
But, Walker — an incredibly strong player on the field, but a soft-spoken person off of it — wasn’t worried about personal accolades. He just wanted the team to win.
Kenneth Walker takes the podium following, Michigan State’s 38-21 win over Northwestern:— The Only Colors (@TheOnlyColors) September 4, 2021
“It’s a blessing to come out and show what we could do as a team.”
“It’s just a blessing to come out and here and show what we can do as a team,” Walker said.
Walker, a junior, praised his blockers and teammates numerous times, and while the offensive linemen don’t often get to be in the spotlight, Walker wanted to make sure to shout out the players who cleared big holes for him.
“I give the credit to the offensive line,” Walker said. “We always get the credit, the skill players — running back, wide receivers and quarterbacks — but it starts with the offensive line....I got a bond with each and every one of my linemen.”
When Walker asked if he has ever had a performance like this in the past, he said he’s “never” experienced a game quite like this — 23 carries for 264 yards and four touchdowns. He also knew he had high expectations coming into the season, but says he didn’t feel any pressure, more “excitement,” and that he knew his teammates had his back either way.
Walker also praised the play of Thorne and shouted out wide receiver Jayden Reed for a nice block as well.
Thorne was also happy with the offensive line play, and of course he was impressed with Walker’s play as well (as just about everybody else was).
“I’ve seen him do that in practice about 50 times,” Thorne said about Walker’s first play of the game that went for a long touchdown. “The guy took a not great angle on him — obviously he’s never played against Ken — and he took a nice little jump cut and he took off.”
Perhaps senior safety Xavier Henderson said it best, though. While the majority of people in the program and fans alike had high hopes for Walker, nobody could have predicted the kind of electrifying performance Walker had on Friday night.
Xavier Henderson has an apology pic.twitter.com/StJXbj5cjE— Stephen Brooks (@StephenM_Brooks) September 4, 2021
“I just wanna say I’m sorry for maybe not hyping Kenneth up enough,” Henderson joked. “I went up to strength and conditioning coach (Lorenzo) Guess, and I was like ‘I can’t believe...you know what, I can believe that just happened.’ All week I was saying ‘I can’t wait to watch Kenneth run’ because that was the kind of stuff he was doing to us at practice...I was ready for him to do it to somebody else.”
Henderson continued with his humor, saying the Spartan players refer to Walker as actor/rapper/singer Nelly, based on his character of “Megget” in the movie “The Longest Yard,” and “Bobbie Miles” from the film “Friday Night Lights.”
As for the rest of the players and the team win, Henderson wasn’t surprised by the result.
“We believe in our process,” Henderson said. “We know we had a really good spring practice and a very physical camp, so we’ve just been waiting to show the world what we can do.”
It wasn’t all great for Michigan State, though, especially with the pass defense that gave up 283 yards and multiple “explosive” plays as Henderson and Tucker refer to them. But Tucker has instilled a “next play” mentality for the team, and while the defense may have given up a few big plays, the unit was able to keep Northwestern off of the scoreboard for nearly the entire first half (The Wildcats’ first score of the game came with under a minute to go before halftime).
Northwestern drove down the field with ease to start the second half as well, but the MSU defense held, forcing a missed field goal attempt.
“We gave up a couple explosives and then we had — I think in the first two possessions — we had two explosives through the air, but then we were able to stop them in the red zone,” Henderson said. “And that’s just playing the next play. We’re not too worried about the play before — that happened in the third quarter (the explosive play again) I think, right after halftime. It’s just playing the next play, we talk about playing the next play all the time, and that’s just the mentality we have — especially on defense.”
Henderson, who was tied for the team lead with nine tackles and also had a sack, said he also loved seeing redshirt freshman Cal Haladay — who started at linebacker and played a lot of snaps — get his chance to play Friday night and show what he could do.
As for Coach Tucker, he was happy with his team’s performance, but knows there is plenty of work to be done throughout the season.
Editor’s Note: Coach Tucker’s voice was very hoarse after the game, and it was hard to hear him from where I was standing during the postgame press conference. It was even more difficult to hear what he was saying on the recorded audio files. I will do my best to make sure quotes are accurate.
“I’m proud of the performance today against a good opponent — Northwestern’s always tough,” Tucker said in his opening remarks. He later added that the the team will review the film, make the necessary corrections and try to improve moving forward.
Tucker was also aware that his squad had a lot of question marks. After a rough 2020 season, and then an offseason that saw several players leave the program, many others who transferred into East Lansing, and a new crop of true freshmen, many pundits had their doubts about how the Spartans would perform this season.
“It was a team effort and we played a team game,” Tucker says.— The Only Colors (@TheOnlyColors) September 4, 2021
He adds that tonight was “our version of the story” after a lot of people questioned where MSU stands. He says he wasn’t surprised by the result.
“There were a of questions about our team (coming into the season),” Tucker said. “I told (our players) we got an opportunity tonight to tell our version of the story about how we play. That’s what we did.”
Tucker — who said he wasn’t at all surprised by the result on Friday night because he knows what his team is capable of — let his players know in the locker room that he is very proud of them, but also wants to keep their focus on the rest of the season. While an opening win is great, he knows the team still has plenty to improve upon moving forward.
Coach Tucker says “this is the beginning,” but it was just one football game.— The Only Colors (@TheOnlyColors) September 4, 2021
“We have to make sure to reach our full potential as a football team.”
“I told (the team) I was proud of them and that that it was a good team effort and we played complementary football,” Tucker said. “It was one game, we didn’t win it all. We expected to come in and play good football — we did that for the most part.
“This is not the end, this is the beginning of this version of this team...We’re gonna celebrate the victory — it’s hard to win football games, it’s hard to win against good teams and it’s hard to win on the road. So, that was an accomplishment for us. But we have a lot of football ahead of us, we’ve got to keep it in perspective.”
What Tucker truly wants is for his team to reach its full potential. Whether or not that happens this season remains to be seen, but the Spartans showed plenty of promise on Friday night against Northwestern.
Tucker also noted that it was great to see so many Spartans fans at an away venue, and he is hoping to see a packed Spartan Stadium next Saturday, Sept. 11 at home against Youngstown State.