As has been the case most seasons since 2011, Michigan State football opened their 2023 season on the Friday before Labor Day before a packed Spartan Stadium crowd. The first evening of September was a bit sweaty, and not just because of the 80+ degree weather, but instead those pesky opening night jitters.
It was a fascinating opener against what should be a middling MAC squad. Let’s get into the moments that defined the win.
1) The End of CMU’s First Drive
After CMU won the coin toss and deferred, MSU had the first crack at moving the football. Nathan Carter exploded with a long rush on the first play from scrimmage, but the drive stalled out shortly thereafter, with MSU turning the ball over on downs in CMU territory. The Chippewas moved the ball down the field effectively as the Spartan defense found its footing. Quarterback Bert Emanuel Jr led the Chips to the 6 yard line with 6:28 to play in the first quarter before a holding call on third down pushed them 10 yards back after MSU accepted the penalty. On the ensuing play from the 16, MSU was penalized, gifting CMU a first down at the 8. The Chips sputtered on first, second, and third down before going for it on fourth down.
In dropping back, Emanuel slipped on the turf and handed the ball back to the Spartans.
Bert Emanuel slipped on 4th down....— FOLLOW: @TSV__1 (@TSV__1) September 1, 2023
So Central Michigan & Michigan State trade 4th down stops to start the game lol pic.twitter.com/PPh7OhTNvu
Michigan State, whose offense was still seemingly in the wilderness, did little to take advantage of the turnover, but the defense appeared to find itself when it needed to, and showed that Mel Tucker’s gamble in accepting the initial third down penalty was worthwhile.
2) Jonathan Kim’s 47 Yard Field Goal
Feeling the sweat building on the brim of my hat on the walk to Spartan Stadium on Friday, I couldn’t help but remember how numb my toes were the last time I’d made that walk - last November after the disastrous finish against Indiana, prompted by a missed 22 yard field goal attempt from Ben Patton as regulation ended. Patton’s graduation and the transfer of Jack Stone created a whole lot of uncertainty around the Spartans’ kicking game. Add in the departure of the rightful winner of last year’s Ray Guy Award in Bryce Baringer, and Ross Els’ unit had as many questions as any on the team.
Enter Jonathan Kim.
Kim, a transfer from North Carolina, had been a kickoff specialist for the Tar Heels, attempting just one field goal in his time in Chapel Hill. Stephen Rusnak, the other placekicker on MSU’s roster had also only attempted one field goal, a miss.
The tension in the building was palpable as Kim trotted onto the field on 4th and 17 to attempt a 47 yarder. The former kickoff specialist booted the football with a lovely draw inside the right upright, tacking the season’s first points onto the scoreboard with minimal stress.
Seeing a kick sail through the uprights without any hiccups from snap to kick was a relief. Sure, it was one play, but the level of uncertainty around the kicking game was extremely high. Kim added 3 PATs along with a single PAT off the foot of Rusnak. It was a good night for the special teams unit, best illustrated by Kim’s field goal in the second quarter.
3) The Two Minute Drill - Noah Kim’s Time to Shine
The story of the Michigan State offseason was the QB room. After starting for two years, Payton Thorne was dropped into a competition in the spring with underclassmen Noah Kim and Katin Houser. Thorne looked to be the leader in the clubhouse during the Spring Game (or Spartan Football Kickoff, or whatever the open practice was actually branded this year). Shortly after spring practice wrapped up, Thorne hit the transfer portal, ultimately ending up on the Plains with Hugh Freeze in Auburn.
With Thorne’s departure, Kim and Houser became the two most likely candidates to win the starting QB job, with true freshman Sam Leavitt competing, but starting way behind the two incumbents.
As expected, Noah Kim started against CMU, bringing his experience and knowledge to the table. Kim was one of the last Dantonio recruits, an undervalued prospect from Northern Virginia. In previous appearances, Kim looked to be a bit of a loose cannon in mop up duty, seeing the field after the outcome of the games were no longer in question. For much of Friday’s first half, Kim looked a bit shaky. Play-calling and execution were out of whack, and Kim was unable to find his groove.
Until 1:51 in the first half.
CMU’s Bert Emanuel Jr connected with Chris Parker to give the Chips a 7-3 lead. With MSU’s offensive struggles, it felt pretty likely that CMU would go into halftime with a lead, momentum, and the ball to start the second half. But at that moment, something clicked.
Kim looked far more comfortable on this drive, hitting Jaron Glover with multiple big plays on a third down and a second down, keeping the drive alive. After a big Glover catch, Kim handed the ball to newcomer Nathan Carter for his first score as a Spartan. Jonathan Kim’s PAT was good, and MSU took a 10-7 lead into the locker room and never looked back. Noah Kim looked comfortable in the second half, as the Spartans offense added another 3 touchdowns as the CMU defense wore down.
4) Cal Haladay’s Interception to open the Second Half
Even with Michigan State leading at the half, CMU was not ready to pack up camp quite yet. The Chippewas have beaten MSU before, and with a quick strike to open the half, they would have been in a reasonably good position to do it yet again.
Bert Emanuel Jr led Central Michigan’s offense into MSU territory, and in looking for his tight end on 2nd and 5, threw into the middle where Cal Haladay wrestled the tipped football out of Mitchel Collier’s hands for a drive-killing takeaway.
That turnover smothered any momentum that CMU had on the offensive side of the ball, as the Chippewas didn’t run another play in MSU territory until the final minutes of the ballgame, when they were down 31-7 with their backup QB running the offense.
And a Bonus! - Tyrell Henry’s Circus Catch
As the score had settled at 17-7 and CMU looked to be out of gas at the outset of the 4th quarter, Noah Kim found Christian Fitzpatrick for a huge completion to get into CMU’s red zone. Two plays later, Kim found sophomore receiver Tyrell Henry in the near corner of the north endzone for one of the more spectacular catches a Spartan receiver has made in years.
Henry’s catch put the Spartans up 24-7, totally icing the opener with the acrobatic flair in the corner of the endzone.