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Michigan State Football: Takeaways from the win over Western Michigan

The Spartans started off the 2022 campaign strong with a 35-13 victory over the Broncos.

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: SEP 02 Western Michigan at Michigan State Photo by Adam Ruff/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

The Michigan State Spartans opened the 2022 season with a 35-13 victory over Western Michigan on Friday night. It wasn’t the prettiest of victories, with the Spartans finding themselves only up one possession at the beginning of the fourth quarter, but MSU held on, closed out the game strong and ultimately got the win in the end.

And with the return of Spartan football, weekly takeaways are back on The Only Colors as well. Let’s dive in!

The Spartan offense continues to adapt to life without Kenneth Walker III

The Michigan State offense got a small taste of life without 2021’s star running back Kenneth Walker III during the Peach Bowl last season. Walker sat out the bowl game to prepare for the NFL Draft, which gave the Spartans the opportunity to evaluate what 2022 would be like without him. The running game struggled, with the leading rusher (Jordon Simmons) tallying only 23 yards. It was clear the Spartans needed to address that in the offseason.

So, Mel Tucker and his staff attacked the transfer portal again, adding not only two running backs in Jarek Broussard (Colorado) and Jalen Berger (Wisconsin), but beefing up the offensive line as well this offseason with Brian Greene (Washington State). The effects of the additions were seen during the victory on Friday. The Spartans rushed for nearly 200 yards as a team, while Berger notched 120 yards and one touchdown on 16 carries, and Broussard added 54 rushing yards on 10 carries.

It may only be Western Michigan, but as the Spartan players get more experience under their belt, the running game may not be as flat as some people expected it to be this offseason after Walker’s departure. Combining this with Payton Thorne and the air attack, Michigan State may be in a pretty good spot offensively this season. I think the first true test of that will be when the Spartans travel to Washington in a few weeks. Keep an eye on that game.

Payton Thorne’s confidence will play a major role this season

Speaking of Thorne, he looked solid, but certainly had his struggles, in his first outing of 2022. The redshirt junior quarterback completed 12 of his 24 pass attempts for 233 yards, four touchdowns and one interception. It was his fourth career game with four touchdowns, tying Connor Cook for a school record.

Thorne had an up-and-down game. He missed some throws, but made up for them in other moments, like his 41-yard touchdown pass to Keon Coleman or his 13-yard touchdown pass to Daniel Barker (although, Barker made a heck of a one-handed grab on that play, too). His biggest blemish on the day was an interception that he threw across his body and on the run. It was his only questionable decision on the day, as it looked like he could have (and probably should have) just taken whatever yards he could get on a scramble and set up a field goal at worst rather than the turnover.

But, in his better moments, Thorne looked confident. He was slinging the ball, and although he misfired a bit, he trusted himself and his arm each time, and eventually connected for some big plays. That confidence and trust in himself will be big this season for the Spartans. With a year of experience as a starter under his belt, and still somewhat unproven running game on offense, Thorne’s ability to trust in his ability and deliver for big plays will be huge for the Spartans this season. Let’s not forget that he set a school record for passing touchdowns last season.

With a tune-up game on the clock against Akron before the Spartans travel to Washington, look for Thorne to be a bit more consistent this week against the Zips.

The defense looks improved (so far)

The glaring weakness of last year’s team was the secondary. The Spartans ranked at the bottom of the FBS in pass defense, which was a huge outlier from previous Michigan State defenses. On Friday, the Spartan defense looked much improved.

Although it didn’t feel like it, the Spartans held the Broncos to under 200 passing yards, a big improvement from last year’s average of 324.8 pass yards allowed per game. MSU also held WMU to 141 yards rushing. Sure, there were moments when the Broncos busted a big play or two, but overall, the defense played pretty well.

The Brandon Jordan effect was evident as well, as the Spartans got to the quarterback seven times, led by linebacker Jacoby Windmon’s four sacks. His performance earned him the Walter Camp National Defensive Player of the Week award and the Big Ten Defensive Player of the Week award for Week One. Aaron Brule, Khris Bogle and Chester Kimbrough each recorded a sack as well.

The defensive transfers — Windmon (UNLV), Brule (Mississippi State) and Bogle (Florida)— all had very strong performances. Georgia transfer cornerback Ameer Speed also had six tackles.

Linebacker Ben VanSumeren was making plays all over the field as well, recording 11 total tackles and one solo. Again, it’s Western Michigan — a respectable opponent, but a Group of Five team out of the Mid-American Conference — but a performance like the one the Spartans had on Friday gives some optimism heading forward into the season.

Injuries plague the Spartans early

It seems like one consistent thorn in the side of the Spartans the past few years has been injuries, and Michigan State has already had some scares early this season. Linebacker Darius Snow left the game early after being helped off the field and didn’t return, and safety Xavier Henderson also left during the first half of the season opener. We may not get any official word from the program on the status of either player, as that's been a trend during the Mel Tucker era.

Hopefully, both players have a speedy recovery, and injuries don’t continue to be an issue moving forward this season. However, Henderson was seen walking with crutches and wearing a brace on his right leg. Snow was seen in a wheelchair, also wearing a brace. Snow also recently tweeted that he was “logging off” of Twitter for a bit.

Update: Unfortunately, Snow will miss the remainder of the 2022 season.

Final Thoughts

Ultimately, Michigan State did what it needed to do to secure the win, and did so by three possessions. The Spartans started a little sloppy, took some blows, and took a little time to bounce back, but they continued to “keep chopping” down the stretch and closed out the game strong. There’s no need to panic because of a sloppy third quarter in Week One. I’ll be looking to see MSU clean up the mistakes and execute a bit better these next few weeks as the Spartans finish up the non-conference schedule.

Michigan State is set to host Akron on Saturday, Sept. 10 at 4 p.m Eastern Time. The game will air on Big Ten Network.