Whether or not this was the last game played for Michigan State this season, the team will have some downtime to reflect on what was overall a disappointing product in 2022.
The Spartans (5-7, 3-6 Big Ten) fell to No. 11 Penn State (10-2, 7-2 Big Ten) in Happy Valley on Saturday by a final score of 35-16 in a contest that was closer than what the final score reflected. The Spartans’ bowl game fate is now out of their hands, but head coach Mel Tucker didn't rule out playing in the postseason if invited.
“There’s still a chance we play another game,” Tucker said following the loss. “We’ll see, I don't know the scenarios and I don't know what makes sense for us right now. So, we’ll just have to wait and see.”
At this point, Michigan State is unlikely to receive a bowl bid based on remaining bowl slots available and Academic Progress Rate (APR) scores.
MSU entered Saturday’s game with limited depth on both sides of the football due to a several injuries, which showed at times. The Spartans began the day down three offensive linemen, three defensive linemen, two cornerbacks, a safety and a tight end — and lost a few players during the game.
“When people talk about next man up...that’s for real,” Michigan State quarterback Payton Thorne said while addressing the team’s issue with depth. “There’s guys that were playing tonight that started the year thinking ‘I’m just going to redshirt this year’ or “This is a work year for me,’ but that’s not the case, you’ve got to have the mindset that ‘I’m going to play.’”
Also missing were the seven players suspended in the melee following the Michigan game who were charged on Wednesday. Freshman defensive back Malcolm Jones — the only Michigan State player who was suspended but not charged — has been reinstated to the team, Tucker announced after the game. Jones and the seven players currently still suspended did not make the trip to Happy Valley.
“Malcolm Jones was reinstated and practiced Thursday and Friday,” Tucker said. “I don't have any updates on the other seven guys.”
Diving into the game itself, there's specific things to look to when evaluating why the team came up short. Penn State dominated on the ground, out-rushing the Spartans 160 yards to 25 yards, and leaving Thorne to play backyard football at times. Running back Elijah Collins was the leading rusher on the day for MSU, finishing with 33 yards on 10 carries in what may be his final game for the team.
Michigan State also lost the turnover battle, giving the ball away three times and taking the ball away zero times on the day. A fumble lost by wide receiver Jayden Reed (who was credited with two lost fumbles on the day) on a punt return contributed to maybe the biggest shift in the game halfway through the third quarter as the Spartans were just starting to gain momentum.
Following the aforementioned fumble recovery, Penn State would score on the ensuing drive on a 14-yard pass from Sean Clifford to Tyler Warren to go up 21-3. Clifford ended his career for the Nittany Lions on a high note, finishing with four touchdowns.
On the flip-side, MSU did everything it could to stay competitive late in this game before things unraveled, closing the gap to just five points in the fourth quarter. Thorne made several key throws in this contest even as Penn State was expecting him to pass, but ultimately couldn't escape the pressure down the stretch. He finished with 229 yards passing, two touchdowns (one rushing) and one interception.
“He’s a tough player and he’s been getting better,” Tucker said about the junior quarterback.
Many look to immediately put blame on the signal-caller when things turn sour in a season, but this year’s Michigan State team had far too many issues for Thorne to take the sole blame. Thorne certainly had his struggles this season, though. There was an obvious adjustment period to begin the year when it came to consistently being able to move the ball without relying on burst plays from running back Kenneth Walker III, and it took the Thorne time to figure it out.
“I’m thankful for this year and everything I’ve learned,” Thorne said about his progression. “Last year, we threw the ball over the top quite a bit, obviously that had to do a lot with us having the best player in the country in the backfield (in Walker). For me, I’ve been able to get a lot of work in throwing the intermediate stuff and over the middle...and that will definitely be something that carries over (next year).”
While the stats didn’t end up pretty, the depleted Michigan State defense held up fairly well most of the game, but also had some major miscues, which led to scores. On what ended up being the deciding touchdown in the fourth quarter, Penn State had four receivers lined up on one side of the field to MSU’s three defenders, which led to an easy catch and run touchdown by running back Nicholas Singleton that put the Nittany Lions up 28-16.
“I thought about the timeout...we probably didn't need a different play, we could have just played it better,” safety Xavier Henderson said about the play. “I think we played well in the second half for sure. It took us too long to get going and when you’re playing against a team like that, we’ve got to give our offense better chances.”
Henderson is one of several seniors who may have played his last game in a Spartan uniform on Saturday, but his loss may hurt the most. The sixth-year senior has played a pivotal role on the field and in the locker room during his career.
“Halfway through the first half, I told everybody, if this is my last game, (expletive) it, I’m going out swinging,” Henderson said when asked about this possibly being his last game. “I just tried to hype them up a little bit. After the game, it hit pretty hard. I got my tears out of the way...but I wouldn’t trade it for anything.”
When Thorne and Henderson were asked if they would want to play in a bowl game, it was a resounding yes.
“I know we would (want to play as a team),” Henderson said. “Bowl games are good practice times for the young dudes...it’s almost like spring ball. So that would be big for us.”
“I would say absolutely...you only get so many games,” Thorne said when asked if he would play in a bowl game. “This isn’t basketball or baseball where you play a ton of times per year...I’d love to play another time and put the jersey on again. But we’ll see, we have no idea.”
Despite the uncertainty of a next game, the Spartans now have time to decompress, reflect and work toward patching up the holes that were exposed all too often this season.
This is only year three for Tucker as the head coach of Michigan State, and so far, it has been a roller coaster. Building a consistent, winning program is no simple task and it doesn't happen overnight — but the taste of success the Spartans had in 2021 makes this 2022 campaign a tough pill to swallow.
Another strong recruiting class coming in next season should help build some momentum, but there may need to be other changes within the program. We’ll see how it plays out.