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Spartan Football Essentials: Plowing Through to Protect the Woodshed

Short-handed but full of fight, MSU survives all elements to finish off Penn State

Offense

Late it the week word leaked that MSU was hit with a big time flu bug. Before the game the accumulating snow gave you an idea of what kind of game to expect. It had the looks of a low scoring battle in the trenches, but that’s not how it went for the MSU Offense. For the eighth time in 2021 the Spartan Offense scored 30-points or more. This one featured the playmakers that put up so many of those points: Payton Thorne, Kenneth Walker, and Jayden Reed.

Thorne shined early and often with big throws at critical times, and kept the Offense from becoming too one dimensional and predictable. Thorne started hot again, flashing his unique combination of poise and precision. He gave MSU a comfy 14-0 lead with a slick Touchdown to Tre Mosely, not even half way into the 1st Quarter. It looked pretty easy.

Thorne was 19 for 30 on the day, with one shaky looking interception, but hit for many major conversions again, including the clinching 4th and 15 for the Touchdown to Jayden Reed. Thorne ran the ball well too, 8 times for 39-yards and a Touchdown, but beyond that he managed the game well and put MSU in position to score enough to stay undefeated at home and get to 10-wins. Thorne needs to learn how to slide more, get out of bounds when he can, and avoid taking dangerous hits like he faced today, but those are small issues for the out of season review. The big story is the Spartans have found a Quarterback that’s likely to rewrite a lot of the MSU history books before he’s all done.

Kenneth Walker and Jayden Reed were among many playing at less than 100%. Both had huge days when MSU needed it most, making plays from beginning to end. Walker broke some runs, carried it 30 times, and went pass 100-yards for the eighth time this year. He probably booked a trip to New York for the Heisman Trophy Award too, and brought himself back into that discussion with another gritty and effective performance in a Spartan win.

Reed caught six balls but none bigger than the deciding play of the day when he secured another Touchdown pass from Thorne to put MSU up 30-20. Walker and Reed’s efforts were as gutty as you could find, but truly the norm for an Offense that fought essentially used the final game of the year to recap how well the MSU Offense produced in 2021. The future looks bright for MSU as the Offense should only get more talented and better up front, and much deeper. As great as Thorne, Reed, and Walker were this year, the 2021 Offense would not have done much without serious improvement up front. It all starts up front in the Big Ten East, and it all started again for Michigan State up front in 2021.

Before the year many around the vast Spartan Nation knew the MSU Offense would only go as far as their Offensive Line permitted. To our pleasant surprise, the first play of the season was a sneak peak at how things would go, and the Offensive Line came a lot further than anyone could have honestly expected. There is a lot to look forward to for the Michigan State Offense.

Defense

Coming off their worst performance in years, and hopefully the worst or the entire Mel Tucker era, the Defense wanted to bounce back and finish the year strong. They did just that while surviving the weather and making their best plays late. The weather may have said “run,” but Penn State threw the ball anyway, and a lot. Sean Clifford threw it well for Penn State when he was not pressured, carving MSU up for more than 300-yards and three passing scores. But this Defense’s “bend but don’t break” mantra held up at the end, one more time.

The Spartan Defense did a lot more good than bad today, as they frankly have all year. There’s no other way to win 10-games with their schedule. MSU opponents to 21-points or less seven times this year, and nearly an eighth today. That is not easy and nothing to balk at. Passing yards matter, rushing totals can be huge, but no stat tops the points left hanging on the board when the game clock hits zero. Scottie Hazelton and company have plenty to celebrate tonight, a good bit to build on for the future, and some real lessons to carry forward from their phenomenal Spartans 10-2 regular season.

Hazelton and staff found ways to “optimize” their 2021 roster. Today was no different. The Defense caused and recovered the big turnover of the game with 8:29 left in the 4th. When Drew Beesley popped it loose from the Lions Keyvone Lee and Cal Haladay hopped on to recover, the game started to tilt towards MSU. It was 23-20 MSU at the time and completely up for grabs, but seven plays later Thorne and Reed bookmarked the takeaway with the 4th Down score to put MSU up 30-20.

This Defense may not look much like some coming to East Lansing in the years ahead, but they earned serious credit for keeping points off the scoreboard as often as they did. You are as good as your record says you are, so along with all the grief they took for the Ohio State scoreboard, the 2021 Defense deserves credit for keeping so many teams under three-scores, and for making some big plays on time like the Spartans Seniors did today.

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After the game, Tucker talked about the resilience of his team and their never quit attitude. Both of those were on display as the Defense made enough plays in the 4th Quarter when the game was hanging in the balance. This Defense earned their share of credit for the fine 10-2 season, and the future looks only brighter for this side of the ball. Mel Tucker will push the Spartans Defense to make a big jump forward next year like the Offense did in 2021, but for the next few weeks the Spartan Nation should keep tipping their hat to Scottie Hazelton and staff for finding a way to make the most possible of “bend but don’t break” Defense.

So many new names found playing time for this Defense, with a good number of young players showing real development that will make a difference in 2022. Of course, there are serious issues to address defending the pass, but Tucker and Hazelton clearly know that. Spartan Football will start working on that next week as recruiting ramps up and bowl prep begins in the coming weeks. The Defense that did enough to get MSU 10-wins in 2021 should only get better and we get into 2022 and beyond.

Special Teams

Matt Coghlin’s 56th game as a Spartan featured another big Field Goal against Penn State, but far sooner than his walk off in 2017. Coghlin’s 22-yard low rider put MSU back up 17-14, but sent the injured super-senior to the bench for good with an ongoing hip injury. Evan Johnson came from deep in the roster to try a PAT in the 2nd Half, which only confirmed how hard kicking the ball had become. In many ways, Coghlin’s final kick in Spartan Stadium was perfect cap to a very long and successful career at MSU that featured a good number of highs, lows, and big ones against Penn State.

Kicking only got harder as the snow added up. Both teams made 4th Down decisions with that in mind, and even the Spartans fine Punter Bryce Barringer was left perplexed by the snow after his 4th Quarter Punt went only 24-yards. Barringer found success earlier, as did Penn State’s Punter Jordan Strout, but kicking the ball off the ground was just brutal for both sides by the end.

On the kick after MSU went up 30-20, Ma’a Gaoteote forced a fumble that looked like it would be the clincher for MSU. The Offense couldn’t keep the ball, but that fumble and recovery by Justin White shrunk the game even more for Penn State. As we have discussed in this space all year and for many years before that, it’s more often the massive gaffe that costs you in Special Teams than anything else. Just ask Nebraska, and on the flip side of that, MSU.

The Spartans made plays all over the field from literally the first snap of the year, but maybe the most important play all year was thanks to Special Teams. Nebraska’s misdirected Punt turned into a Jayden Reed Touchdown that gave MSU a shot to steal a win. Michigan State was 3-0 at the time, and took full advantage of that Special Teams game changer by pushing it into Overtime and then closing out the win with another Coghlin game winner. 2021 was a solid year for this unit with some really big plays at big times. All signs point towards better Special Teams in the future but MSU looks to have a lot to replace in the kicking and return games.

Intangibles

It’s one thing to bounce back from your worst loss of the year, another to bounce back from a loss that cost you a shot at the Big Ten East. But as we discussed a few weeks back, MSU was going to play all twelve games. Whether they won or lost against Michigan, MSU had a look at 10-wins. And regardless of the 1st Half at Ohio State last week, this team would have to find a way to finish against Penn State. That’s what the best programs in the sport find a way to do.

When word leaked that Michigan State could be down as many as two-dozen players for today’s finale a lot of folks scrambled to lower expectations, rationalize a loss to Penn State, and preemptively look ahead to whatever Bowl opportunity MSU would have to win a 10th game. MSU players did not. They dug as deep as they have all year, stretching and straining through the entire printed roster, if not beyond, to find the grit that makes their Gruff Sparty logo shine so bright. This was a true program builder for the 2021 Spartans and Head Coach Mel Tucker. They kept chopping all the way.

Extra Points

Ten wins is a big deal in major College Football. How big? Just look at the company Spartan Football rides with these days. Michigan State now has 10-win seasons in seven of their last twelve. How does that stack up with other name brands in that span? Check the numbers.

Florida did it four times, Texas once, Nebraska twice, and USC four times. Those flashy Oregon Ducks have seven 10-win seasons in their last twelve, Wisconsin and Notre Dame too, but Michigan only five, and Penn State just three. Florida State and LSU have six, Auburn only three, and upstart Cincinnati has five. Are you getting the full picture? Oklahoma has ten, and Ohio State has 10-wins or more in all but two of those seasons, one thanks to the pandemic and the other thanks to the fallout from the Tattoo Benefits scandal. That’s how well Spartan Football measures up around the world of College Football right now, winning 10 games or more a pretty consistent basis.

Yet, as Mel Tucker reminded the Spartan Nation after the impressive 10th win today, with snow melting on his head, the 2021 Spartans are not done. The Spartans will take a shot to win an 11th game for the sixth time in twelve years in the coming Bowl Game. That’s how good Spartan Football has been over the last dozen years, and 2021 is just the start for Mel Tucker’s era of Michigan State Football.