The Michigan State Spartans opened up the 2021 season with a 38-21 victory over the Northwestern Wildcats on the road in Evanston. Mel Tucker and company set the tone early in the win, with running back Kenneth Walker III taking his first carry in the Green and White 75 yards to the house on the first play from scrimmage.
We learned a lot about this year’s team on Friday night, and will learn plenty more as the season moves forward, but let's take a moment to look at some of the takeaways from the season-opening victory.
1. Kenneth Walker III is as good as advertised (or better)
The biggest takeaway from Friday’s win is that transfer running back Kenneth Walker III is very good at the whole football thing. As mentioned, Walker took the opening carry 75 yards to the house, showing off his speed and athleticism in the process. He finished with 264 yards and four touchdowns, which marked the best single-game performance by a Spartan running back since Le’Veon Bell had 266 yards against Minnesota in 2012.
Oh, and in case you’ve forgotten, the Spartans went the entire 2020 season without a rushing touchdown from a running back.
While Walker’s speed and athleticism helped him on a few of his long runs, it would be wrong not to credit some of the blocking his offensive line gave him. Arkansas State transfer offensive tackle Jarrett Horst came in clutch on some key blocks on the outside. Horst recently received praise from Tucker during his radio show for his physicality in the trenches, and that was evident on Friday. As Tucker said, Horst “plays through the echo of the whistle,” which was a big help in the run game on Friday night.
Connor Heyward, who seems to be playing primarily as a tight end/H-back this season, also picked up some key blocks in the run game, particularly on Walker’s second touchdown of the game, where he set a key block on an incoming linebacker, which gave Walker the space he needed to punch it in for the score.
Finally having an established running game will really help the Spartans this year moving forward, obviously, especially as MSU gets later into the season. While Walker might not put up 250 yards per game moving forward, being able to have that threat is going to be huge for an offense looking to make a major jump from where it was in 2020.
2. Depth players are ready to make an impact.
Mel Tucker has made it clear from day one of his time at Michigan State that if a player is ready to play, they’ll get to play. He made that clear on Friday, providing significant minutes for many of the depth players. Many of them looked sharp, too.
Darius Snow saw a good amount of time on the field with the defense on Friday, with a few big plays to show for it, too. Snow read a few plays perfectly and made some impressive open-field tackles, including a tackle for loss on a screen pass in the third quarter. Another mild surprise was redshirt freshman Cal Haladay drawing the start at linebacker, playing a lot of snaps, and playing pretty well overall.
The Spartans also rotated through plenty of defensive linemen throughout the game, which is a promising sight. If the Spartans have that much depth at the defensive line that’s ready to play right away, the defense could be a really strong, and fresh unit this season for a team that needs to take a big step forward from last season. The elite Spartan defenses of recent years have been built from the trenches. Hopefully, that returns this season.
3. Spartans have a quarterback.
Spartans fans finally found out who the No. 1 quarterback was on Friday. Payton Thorne was revealed as the starter just before kickoff, and he looked solid throughout the game. Thorne looked calm under pressure, delivered some great throws (although some were saved by some incredible catches by his wide receivers) and most importantly didn’t turn the ball over.
One of the biggest issues the last few seasons for the Spartans has been finding their guy under center. They’ve had trouble finding a quarterback who can deliver consistently, and it’s really held the team back. Last year, Thorne showed flashes of the quarterback he can be, and it shouldn’t be a surprise he got the start on Friday. He had a solid, albeit unspectacular, game against the Wildcats and did what his team needed him to in order to pull off the win.
The one area Thorne was a bit off on was the deep ball, but that seemed to be some rust being shaken off, and while he doesn’t have the strongest arm, it might not be a huge concern moving forward — we’ll see. I believe he’ll dial it in. He was pretty close to hitting his receivers on the deep ball, but, oh boy, once he does that’s going to be a big threat that the Spartan offense has to work with.
The Spartans are in a good place right now, but that doesn’t mean there isn’t work to be done. If you think about it, if the Wildcats hit both of their missed field goals, the final score is 38-27 and looks like a lot closer of a game. But, a win is a win, and the Spartans are in a good spot with Youngstown State on the horizon next week for the home opener.