Michigan State’s goals for the season have shifted following a four-game losing streak, but Saturday’s 34-28 thriller double overtime win over Wisconsin gives the program and fan base a much-needed morale boost.
“Obviously things have been tough this year...we never lost confidence in each other,” redshirt senior wide receiver Jayden Reed said following Saturday’s win.
Reed was a catalyst in the victory, finishing with nine catches for 117 receiving yards and the game-winning catch in the second overtime. Oh, Reed also THREW a touchdown pass Keon Coleman on the first play of the first overtime period. Michigan State head coach Mel Tucker said “He looked like Randall Cunningham out there,” obviously poking fun comparing the senior wideout to the former All-Pro quarterback.
Many of the same struggles appeared for the Spartans on Saturday, but at a much lower volume. The defense was able to force turnovers and make some key stops, which allowed the offense to get MSU’s key playmakers involved, primarily in the second half. The increased balance against Wisconsin was something Tucker emphasized after the game.
“We played complementary football more often tonight, and we executed more often tonight...If one guy isn't doing his job, usually we don't have a positive play whether it’s offense, defense or special teams,” Tucker said.
Things looked all too familiar following the first drive (where MSU’s defense has now allowed an opening drive touchdown for the fifth game in a row), but the defense responded, thanks to production from senior linebacker/defensive end Jacoby Windmon. The transfer standout had another monster performance, finishing with 11 tackles, one forced fumble and one interception. He shifted back to his more natural position of linebacker on Saturday because of the depth returning from injury at the edge rusher position. However, Windmon also still rushed off of the edge on third downs.
“We decided to move him back to linebacker...it’s good to have more depth at (defensive end), which has allowed us to do that,” Tucker said. “He’s been very unselfish, which has helped our football team.”
As a whole, the defense was finally able to get some stops on third down, as Wisconsin converted just four of its 12 third-down attempts. However, penalties were an issue on Saturday and allowed Wisconsin to continue more drives than they should have. The Spartans had nine total penalties totaling 102 yards.
“We need to eliminate dumb and foolish penalties...we need to have more poise and more discipline as a football team,” Tucker said. He spoke about separating penalties into two categories, the foolish ones and the aggressive ones. He mentioned, “Aggressive penalties are going to happen when you’re playing full speed.”
As mentioned, the Spartans got back a few key players who should help the team carry over the momentum into the bye week before Michigan State’s game in Ann Arbor. Having redshirt senior defensive tackle Jacob Slade back in the interior elevated the rest of the defensive line. Fifth-year senior Xavier Henderson’s impact goes beyond his playmaking, as he provides unparalleled leadership in the back end of the defense.
“It was good to have those guys back and they fought hard to be back,” Tucker said about Slade and Henderson. He emphasized importance of that experience.
An impressive showing by Payton Thorne should give the redshirt junior quarterback some much needed confidence moving forward. He's struggled during the losing streak, with some even calling for backup Noah Kim to get an opportunity. Thorne had to carry the load against Wisconsin as the running game once again struggled to find its footing.
“It feels good to be back on the right side of things,” Thorne said following the performance. “The season’s not over.” Thorne finished the game with 265 yards, two touchdowns and zero turnovers.
The Spartans now enter the bye week with a 3-4 record, also finally picking up a conference victory. A win like this gives the whole team confidence, but there’s a laundry list of improvements needed to be made. If the team can get some others back from injury over the next two weeks, things will look brighter heading into the rivalry game at Michigan.
“We can't be seduced by success...we’ll see how we show up for what’s next,” Tucker said. He also explains that the Spartans can't listen to things outside of their control, comparing the team to a “yo-yo” of how they can act up and down based on outside influence.
Criticism will always be a part of the job, especially with the standards that Tucker has set for the program. Michigan State will have time to enjoy this one, but with the next challenge awaiting being maybe the biggest of the season, I expect the celebration to be short lived. Still, you have to enjoy any and every victory.