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Spartan Football Essentials: Strained And Stressed, But Still Undefeated

MSU survives the Hoosiers Homecoming best, moves to 7-0 with a gritty 20-15 win.

OFFENSE

MSU looked a bit run-stubborn during the first few drives. Indiana controlled the line of scrimmage early, and held control most of the day. Tom Allen learned from Nebraska’s success slowing the MSU Offense, and held the Spartan Offense to only 13-points for the day. Indiana did a good job trying to force Kenneth Walker to run between the tackles, and MSU’s Offense was a bit slow to adjust. The numbers at Halftime were a lot more about Indiana that they were about Michigan State. MSU had just 57-yards of Offense at the Half, running the ball about a dozen times for 22 yards.

Jay Johnson and staff could have been more prepared for what Indiana wanted to do, and a little quicker to try something else as the 1st Half slogged on. After the experience against Nebraska and again today in Bloomington, this Offense has to be ready for how teams will try to stop them from here. They need to figure out a way to adjust on the fly, before the Halftime break. If not, they might stall out early and fall too far behind to come back from.

With Walker shut down and his Wide Outs dropping a few, Payton Thorne had to improvise a bit. We saw Thorne run the ball pretty well, seven times. We saw Thorne slide to avoid contact, and then we saw Payton Thorne with one of the biggest catches of the game. Tyler Hunt may be the ultimate handy man on this team, and when he ended back to pass and lofted a ball towards the sideline for Thorne, no one in Spartan Nation could’ve expected the MSU Quarterback to catch the ball while covered, inside the boundary. Yet, it looked like he did in real time, and after a replay reversed the incomplete pass call, the Spartan Offense had a little burst. Thorne ultimately made more plays than his Hoosiers counterpart, which may have been the biggest difference in the tight game today.

It was not Thorne’s best day. His late interception, for example, was thrown too short when if anything it had to be too long, but it was a day of valuable growing pains for his Offense. MSU’s entire Offense, coaches and players, will be better for going through the struggle at Indiana today. The next time they get pushed around a bit, popped in the mouth early on, and pressed to adjust on the fly, they will be in better shape to so. Jay Johnson and the Spartan Offense will have better days ahead but there may not be and day as valuable with the lessons and experience earned at Indiana today.

DEFENSE

This unit was under pressure quickly as Indiana came out sharper and more energized than MSU, and faced pressure until the very end when they were called on multiple times to close the Hoosiers out. Scottie Hazelton keeps getting as much as he can out of the 2021 Spartan Defense. They emptied their tank again at Indiana today and won the game for MSU more than any other unit. They have not perfected the art of “bend but don’t break,” but they are coming about as close as humanly possible through this amazing 7-0 streak.

It was another game of timely big plays for this unit, starting with maybe the biggest play of the day that kept Indiana from breaking out. Cal Haladay just keeps making plays. You want a short cut to earning playing time at MSU? Go ask the Red-Shirt Freshman from Elysburn, Pennsylvania. Haladay has figured that out, established himself as a leader, and notched a career highlight with a beloved Pick-Six late in the 1st Quarter.

After Indiana rotated Quarterbacks for a few snaps, Haladay picked of Jack Tuttle and took it about 30-yards to the house to put MSU on the board and up 7-3. It was a momentum snatcher that flipped the script as Indiana was about to have firm control. Jacob Slade had a stand out day too, including a highlight tackle with about 2:00 left in the 1st Half that probably saved a Touchdown. Without their points and enough plays to keep Indiana out of the End Zone, Indiana would’ve been up pretty big at the Half.

As the 2nd Half played out Indiana did suffer from having to play their backup Quarterback. Michael Penix was not healthy enough to start and that ended up making a big difference as Tuttle’s inexperienced showed on a 28 for 52 day that included two very big interceptions and a huge fumble late. After the second interception Indiana adjusted to emphasize the run and their fresher legs even more, but the Spartans did not break. Indiana ran hard, but only for 134-yards on 36 tough carries. The Spartan Defense got tired, but found the energy in the deep water moments to make the winning plays.

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Despite more than a few questionable flags (more on that later), Jacub Panasiuk, Slade, and a handful of others made the kind of plays the Defense needed to close out another road win. Stats aside, Michigan State held another opponent under 21-points. That’s six out of seven, folks. That’s about as good as it gets for any Spartan Defense. This unit is a huge part of Michigan State’s undefeated start.

SPECIAL TEAMS

After a bad week at Rutgers it was strange and risky to see some kind of a lateral on the opening play of the game. Whether that was a coach’s call or player decision, it was ill advised. All that did was slow down the return and give Indiana extra juice to start the game. Things did not get much better early as Spartan Special Teams had multiple penalties that cost MSU significant field position. Special Teams penalties before the snap suggest some disorganization that must be cleared up during the bye week or it will end up costing MSU big.

Bryce Baringer remains the most reliable Special Teams performer to date, having another big day dropping multiple punts inside the 20-yard line. It’s hard to quantify his value to this football team but safe to say he’s in early consideration for the Big Ten’s Punter of the Year award. He was not the only Spartan making big kicks today.

Matt Coghlin came back to MSU for opportunities like the one he had today to put MSU up 10-9. Coghlin’s 51-yarder into a solid breeze may go down as one of his better Field Goals in a career that started before Tik Tok was even a thing. His 49-yarder in the 4th Quarter was on the same level, and stretched MSU’s lead to 20-15 with the kind of big kick energy that can only be earned over time. Matt Coghlin delivered the good when Spartan Nation needed it most today.

INTANGIBLES

Indiana came to play today. Fresh off a bye week they were more intense, focused, had fresher legs, and were coached up to compete with the Spartans despite significant and impactful injuries to their starters. Credit Tom Allen and Indiana for finding that edge. MSU looked a bit flat, tired, and maybe with a hint of looking past Indiana on a day that should not have been in the equation. But that’s part of college football, part of what makes it great, and the Spartans eventually found a way to find their footing, find and edge, and come out on top. There’s so much value in getting a hard fought win and some big time lessons to take forward.

It was not a good day for officials. MSU had 12 Flags for 134-yards, Indiana only 4 Flags for 35-yards. That’s too big a disparity, the officiating crew blew too many calls in real time, including scoring plays, and the Big Ten simply has some real work with the officiating crew on that field today. Michigan State found a way to get past it, however, which is the bigger deal. That doesn’t happen often.

Many in Spartan Nation can quickly rip off a list of seasons where that was not the case for Spartan Football. Years where there wasn’t enough in the tank or enough mental toughness to get past and overcome an iffy day of officiating. Credit for that starts at the top, flows through the team leaders, and spreads across the entire roster that found a way to persevere through the wobbly laundry tossed around Memorial Stadium today.

EXTRA POINTS

Spartan Football is back and rolling. After seasons of snowballs in the wrong direction, Mel Tucker has the 2021 team rolling down hill fast and primed to make a surprise run at championships. Tucker has led this program back in a flash. When he arrived preaching a sense of urgency, he was not kidding. When he warned his roster in year one that competition would reveal the truth, he was prophetic. And now his Spartans should be ranked safely inside the Top-10 after their bye next week, ready for Michigan Week. Before then, let the entire Spartan Nation take some time to enjoy, celebrate, and appreciate all that has gone into this amazing 7-0 start.