It may not have been the most beautiful 60 minutes of football ever played in East Lansing, but on Friday night the Michigan State Spartans were able to secure a 35-13 victory over the pesky Western Michigan Broncos in the season opener for both teams.
Following the game, head coach Mel Tucker and several of his players addressed the media. There was a lot of discussion about the feeling of being back inside Spartan Stadium, some new players for 2022 and the individual plays that helped to determine the final outcome.
Respect for the Broncos
Playing an in-state Group of Five team in the first game of the season can be a dangerous situation for a Power Five team. Just ask Virginia Tech. Coming out of Friday night’s game, it was clear that Michigan State’s coaches and players had a tremendous amount of respect for the visiting Broncos.
“Western is very well coached.” Tucker said in his opening statement to the press. “They came out and gave us everything that we could handle and I have a lot of respect for that football team.”
Coach Tucker’s comments were echoed by some of his players
“Hats off to Western Michigan,” senior linebacker/defensive end and UNLV transfer Jacoby Windmon said. “They are a very talented team and well-coached.”
Redshirt junior and starting quarterback Payton Thorne went into even more specifics about what impressed him about Western Michigan’s defense.
“They did a lot of things that we really hadn’t seen on film, or maybe we saw it one time on film all last year,” Thorne said. “They brought it all out against us, they played hard, and they didn’t ever give up.
“They blitzed a ton,” Thorne added later. “And they showed some interesting looks that are tough to communicate to everybody up front.”
One of the key storylines coming into the game was the fact that Thorne would be going against a team that currently employs his father (Jeff Thorne) as the offensive coordinator. But when Thorne was asked if he’d talked to his dad before the game, it was essentially a non-issue.
“I saw him before the game when I was out there throwing,” Thorne said. “I was able to say hi to him. It was like five seconds, maybe. I’ll see him after the game. So that’s about it.”
Back in The Woodshed
Despite the sometimes-sloppy play from the Spartans on Friday night, Tucker generally seemed pleased with his team's performance. He mentioned several times that he needed to review the game film before making any final determination, but his general postgame vibe was very positive.
“I was proud of the effort from our football team tonight,” Tucker said to open the press conference.
When asked about the pass defense, Coach Tucker implied that he needs to see the film but "I saw a strong effort and a lot of contested balls." He mentioned a few coverage errors, but in general seemed reasonably pleased. "I saw solid play for the most part."— The Only Colors (@TheOnlyColors) September 3, 2022
“I like what I saw in the locker room after the game from our team and from our leaders,” he continued. “It’s a hungry football team, and we know that we need to get better. It was just a very mature locker room after the game.
“It’s a very unselfish football team,” Tucker added later. “I believe these guys understand to just do your job, play team ball, and good things will happen for you.”
Another thing that was very clear from the press conference is that both Tucker and his players were very excited to be back in Spartan Stadium under the lights and in front of the fans.
“It was a great opportunity to get out there in The Woodshed,” Windmon said. “I cannot ask for a better atmosphere from the fans.”
“The stadium was unbelievable,” Tucker added. “I love our fans. Our student section was off the charts. I really appreciate that as a head football coach. We all do.
“The Woodshed is a real thing,” Tucker continued. “Football is important. You can feel that when you walk in there. It’s a special opportunity when we get a chance to play in there and coach in there. So, I want to thank our fans and our students for showing up and getting after it tonight.”
“It’s a next-man-up mentality”
The 2022 Michigan State football roster has a lot of new faces. Three of the Spartans’ five touchdowns were scored by players who are new to East Lansing this year (freshman wide receiver Germie Bernard, Illinois graduate transfer tight end Daniel Barker and sophomore and Wisconsin transfer running back Jalen Berger). But the Michigan State defense had even more new faces on the field on Friday night.
Perhaps the brightest shining new star on that defense was Windmon, who recorded a total of four sacks, three additional solo tackles and one forced fumble. Coach Tucker was obviously very pleased with Windmon’s performance.
“He’s hungry,” Tucker said with a smile. “He just wants to get better. You just have to love him.”
As for Windmon himself, he was very humble in the postgame press conference. He wouldn’t even admit that this was likely the best game of his career.
“Honestly, my role is just to do whatever is best for the team,” Windmon said. “It was a good opportunity to go in there and get better. I don’t look at stats. I just play my heart out and then let the rest take care of itself.”
Windmon says that his "mindset is to dominate whatever position he is asked to play."— The Only Colors (@TheOnlyColors) September 3, 2022
In general, the Spartans rotated a lot of bodies on defense. According to the Pro Football Focus snap counts, 25 different Michigan State defenders got into the game on Friday night, and 19 of those players played at least 10 snaps.
In some cases, players saw the field due to injuries, such as those sustained by junior linebacker Darius Snow and fifth-year safety Xavier Henderson. The status of both players is still unknown. (Tucker said, “I can’t give you anything right now and I know a lot more tomorrow.”)
However, rotating players on defense also seemed like a key part of the overall game plan.
“It allows us to do a lot of different things on defense and be very effective out in the field,” redshirt sophomore linebacker Cal Haladay said following the game. “It helps (us) to be fresh for the whole game. It helps a lot to be able to run at full speed on every single play, and to be able to catch your breath (on the sidelines) because you know there’s a guy out there who’s going to be able to get the job done.”
When asked about the challenge of losing both Snow and Henderson on the communication on defense, Coach Tucker said that he did not notice any drop off in communication.— The Only Colors (@TheOnlyColors) September 3, 2022
Coach Tucker described it as follows.
“We’re a communication defense,” he said. “Everybody’s talking. It’s like that in practice. We talk in meetings. A play comes up and the guys are making calls in the meetings. It’s not just the starters. It’s the twos and threes and everyone because of this next-man-up mentality. You don’t know when your number is going to be called. You have to be prepared and ready to go in.”
The plays that mattered
As with most athletic contests, Friday night’s game ebbed and flowed with momentum changes on both sides. While the Spartans were a little slow out of the gate, Michigan State was threatening to score just before halftime with a chance to potentially put the game out of reach.
In the closing seconds of the half, Thorne opted to make a dangerous throw on the run, across his body, instead of attempting to pick up the first down with his legs. That pass was intercepted, and it took the Spartan offense a full quarter to get back on track after that mistake. When asked about this play following the game, Thorne had this to say:
“It was pretty stupid, that’s what it was,” Thorne said. “So, I was really not happy with that at all. That was a great learning moment.”
But the reason why Thorne thought it was stupid may surprise you.
“I work on that throw every day before practice,” Thorne said. “(I work on) flipping my hips and making that throw. I don’t know why I didn’t flip my hips. I threw it on the run, which really blows my mind...So that was dumb, and that’s not a play that we can make in the future.”
Thorne is now asked about some of his throws that were a bit high. Thorne says that he was disappointed in his performance in the first half. He credits WMU on some coverage that they had never seen on film.— The Only Colors (@TheOnlyColors) September 3, 2022
There was also a tense moment in the third quarter when Thorne appeared to be shaken up after a late hit by a Bronco defender on a quarterback scramble. Based on Thorne’s comments the situation was not as bad as it may have seemed.
“I was pissed off that I was having to come out for a play,” Thorne said. “Our trainers were just doing their job, but I was not happy that they came out here. I was down for a second, and obviously he got me pretty good, but right as I was raising up, my leg cramps and I couldn’t get up.”
Later in the game, with the Spartans clinging to an eight-point lead, Coach Tucker decided to go for a touchdown on a crucial fourth-and-goal from the one-yard line. The gamble paid off and effectively ended a potential Western Michigan rally. When asked about this decision, Tucker said the following.
“We wouldn’t go for it if we didn’t believe that we could get it done. We’re not just hoping or wishing. We believe. We have faith that we can get our pads down no matter what they have in there and we can get some movement and push that thing in there...Was it a full yard? Yeah, we better get that.”
Later in the press conference, Wisconsin transfer running back Jalen Berger was also asked about this critical red zone sequence.
Jalen Berger is now at the podium. He says "I felt like I left a lot of yard on the field." He mentions dropping the screen pass on third down.— The Only Colors (@TheOnlyColors) September 3, 2022
“It took me a while to get in the end zone,” Berger said. “I should have got in on the second play after (the 50-yard run to get into the red zone), but I finally got in there”
When Berger was asked if he would have been offended if Coach Tucker opted for a field goal on fourth-and-one, Berger jokingly answered:
Responding to Adversity
Once again, when the Spartans faced adversity on Friday night, they rose to the occasion and made the plays that they needed to make to put the game away. In 2021, the Spartans won a lot of close games with a similar formula. It is starting to look like this is a pattern.
When Tucker was asked whether he or a player said something to get the team fired up in the fourth quarter, Coach gave a somewhat surprising reply.
“We talked about that before we even came into the game,” Tucker said. “We talked about not flinching. You know there’s going to be momentum swings and no matter who you play, how do you get the momentum back? You get the momentum back by executing one play at a time.
“I didn’t see frustration to the point where we couldn’t function,” Tucker continued. “We stayed together. We kept chopping and talking about what adjustments we needed to make and how to get better execution.
“There was no rah-rah speech or anything like that. Those rah-rah moments don’t last. They don’t work. We have to chop. We have to grind. We have to execute.”
In other words, Coach Tucker doesn’t motivate his team with Knute Rockne-style speeches. Tucker has a process and builds a sustainable culture. While the execution was not perfect at times on Friday night, it seems clear that the Michigan State program is still very much headed in the right direction.
Michigan State will get another chance to test its skills against a MAC opponent next weekend as the Akron Zips visit East Lansing. The game will kick off at 4 p.m. Eastern Time and will be televised on the Big Ten Network.