Michigan State got back in the win column on Saturday after a thrilling 34-28 double overtime win over Wisconsin, making the Spartans’ homecoming weekend that much sweeter. The victory snapped MSU’s four-game losing streak and got the Spartans their first conference win of the season — something the team desperately needed.
Quarterback Payton Thorne looked like his old self down the stretch, the defense looked so much better than it has all season, and the team all-around looked to have some life again. Let’s dive into the takeaways for this week.
Payton Thorne earned some respect
Say what you will about Thorne’s performances in the last few weeks. They certainly weren’t enough, and the Spartans’ starting quarterback knew that. In the postgame press conference after the loss to Ohio State a week ago, Thorne acknowledged his frustration and knew he needed to play better. And this week he certainly bounced back.
Despite somewhat of a stagnant start by the Michigan State offense, Thorne ended up with 21 completions on 29 attempts for 265 yards and two touchdowns. He did not turn the ball over. It was Thorne’s second-highest passing yardage total of the season, throwing for 323 yards in the loss to Washington earlier this year.
Thorne’s decision-making late in the game was what really stood out, along with his aggressiveness and confidence in his ability. That’s something that’s seemed to be lacking from him this season. He’s made some big mistakes and thrown seven interceptions this year, and I think that’s led to him not testing some deep shots when he really should be, especially when you have two dominant, physical wide receivers in Jayden Reed and Keon Coleman. More on that in a second.
But, in the second overtime, when Michigan State realistically only needed a field goal after forcing a fumble on Wisconsin’s drive, Thorne wanted more. He got aggressive, trusted his ability, checked into a different play and lofted a 27-yard touchdown pass to Jayden Reed, who had an equally impressive grab for the win. That’s the Payton Thorne the Spartans need if they want to salvage their season in the second half of the year. With a bye week upcoming and Michigan on the clock, I’d really like to see that version of Thorne come out of the tunnel in two weeks in Ann Arbor.
This offense can and SHOULD be aggressive
As I mentioned before, it was the aggressiveness late in the game and in overtime that won the Spartans this game. That was something that had been lacking through the last few weeks, and even into the first half of Saturday’s game. The play-calling had been a bit conservative until it was too late during Michigan State’s losing streak. But, that certainly changed late on Saturday.
The play that stands out was Jayden Reed’s 25-yard touchdown pass to Keon Coleman. It was certainly risky, the throw was wobbly and it could have gone terribly wrong. However, it was one of the most aggressive and creative play calls this season and it showed the Spartans were trying to go all out to win the game. After the game, Michigan State head coach Mel Tucker joked that Reed “looked like Randall Cunningham out there.”
Michigan State has two huge playmakers on the outside who can win one-on-one in Reed and Coleman, and after Saturday, it’s clear the Spartans need to trust not just them, but Thorne as well. Moving forward, the Spartans need to be aggressive and trust their big playmakers on the offense.
The defense takes a step forward
The defense took a significant step forward on Saturday, allowing only 283 total yards and a mere 131 passing yards. The passing total was the lowest allowed by the Spartans since Mel Tucker became the head coach. The total yardage was the lowest total allowed since the Spartans allowed 276 total yards in Mel Tucker’s debut against Rutgers.
There were a couple of factors that led to this. First of all, the defense moved to more of a 4-3 base, which allowed Jacoby Windmon to play his more natural position of linebacker, while also still rushing off the edge on third downs.
The defensive line played one of its best games this season. The defense recorded three sacks, with the defensive linemen responsible for two of them. Defensive tackle Dashaun Mallory recorded a fumble recovery as well, getting the ball back during the second overtime period and setting up the game-winning drive for Michigan State. Windmon forced the fumble in overtime, recorded an interception and had two tackles for loss.
The Spartans held a talented rushing team to 152 rushing yards, a big step forward after allowing 237 to the Ohio State Buckeyes and 217.3 rushing yards per game in conference play. The defensive line played a HUGE role in that, too. The defense still gave up some plays, but with the bye week coming up, the Spartans have plenty of time to improve on what we saw against Wisconsin. The defensive line HAS to play this way consistently if the Spartans want to salvage the season.
Safety Xavier Henderson and defensive tackle Jacob Slade also returned from injury, which shifted some players back around, and the lineup that the Spartans went with on defense clearly worked. The Michigan Wolverines are going to be a tough test, with both a very good passing offense and an even better, dominant running game. We’ll see how the Spartans are able to combat that in a few weeks.
The Spartans could’ve easily rolled over and died after getting blown out at home to Ohio State to extend the losing streak to four games, but this team will not quit. Michigan State kept working, built on some of the things it has done well, and it culminated in a homecoming win against a struggling, but solid Wisconsin team. There’s new life injected into the Spartans, and while MSU still has some tough games left on the schedule, and won’t be competing for a conference title, there are still some things to play for down the stretch. The Spartans might find themselves making a bowl game after it seemed like the season was lost just a week ago, but there is plenty of work to do before that happens.