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Jalen Berger isn't Kenneth Walker, but he's what Michigan State needs in the backfield

The Spartans landed another good tailback out of the transfer portal

Michigan State tailback Jalen Berger, a redshirt sophomore transfer from Wisconsin, had an unenviable task a week ago when the Spartans hosted Western Michigan in East Lansing.

Berger was the first starting tailback in the post-Kenneth Walker era for the Spartans.

Now, Michigan State was never going to ask Berger to be the next Walker. Replacing the 2021 Doak Walker Award winner is too big of a burden to place on any one player.

What the Spartans needed Berger to be was a hard-running, contact-absorbent running back who could open up Michigan State’s play-action pass game.

And that’s exactly what they got.

Berger racked up 120 yards rushing on 16 carries and a score in MSU’s season-opening victory. He, along with Colorado transfer Jarek Broussard, provided a constant threat that Western Michigan had to respect, and that opened the field for quarterback Payton Thorne to take deep shots to his receivers.

“I think you can kind of get a little bit of a picture of what our plan was going into the game,” MSU head coach Mel Tucker said of his rushing attack. “Use both backs and run the ball some, have our play-action and take our shots.”

Thorne threw for four touchdown passes in the opener, most of which came against man-to-man coverage as the Broncos had to dedicate defenders to the box to slow down the run.

The Spartans consistently ran for around five to six yards per carry last Friday, and that chipping away paid dividends when Michigan State needed to mount a drive to put the game away.

Leading 21-13 with just over ten minutes left in the game, the Broncos had stayed in the game far too long for the Spartans liking. Two plays after Thorne hit sophomore wide receiver Keon Coleman for a 26-yard gain to give MSU some breathing room, Berger popped off a 50-yard run on a zone read that took the Spartans all the way down to Western Michigan’s seven yard line.

“The defense had been overflowing a bit on the outside zones all game, so I just felt like if I cut it up and hit backside I could probably pop one,” Berger said. “That’s what I’d been waiting for the whole game.”

Michigan State then handed the ball to Berger on four consecutive plays until the redshirt sophomore found the end zone, putting the Spartans up 28-13 and ending any hope of a Bronco upset.

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“That’s what we want to do every time we’re in the red zone,” Berger said. We want to score the ball every chance we get, and I feel like we’ve got to work more on finishing because there were some times we were in the red zone and we didn’t come out with any points.”

Again, this is what Michigan State needs from its ground game in 2022. Walker covered a lot of deficiencies the Spartans had on that side of the ball a year ago. Some of those deficiencies haven’t been tested yet this season, but this roster is deeper than it was a year ago.

Michigan State has weapons it likes on the outside, but the Spartans must be able to keep defenses honest with their ground game.

“When you look at Berger and [Broussard], I think you can see that both of those guys are capable of carrying the football for us and being productive,” Tucker said. “As long as we have good offensive line play, and the tight ends block, and the receivers block, and Payton gets us in and out of the right plays, and those guys take care of the football, we can get production at the running back spot.”

Berger got a vote of approval from his quarterback following Michigan State’s Week 1 win as well.

“Jalen played really well today,” Thorne said. “We’ve seen that from him for a while now. We knew we had a pretty good back. We have a few good backs, you know? He’s shown good things. I thought he ran the ball really well.”

Tucker echoed his quarterback’s sentiments, reinforcing that Michigan State has seen consistent production from Berger throughout fall camp.

“Pretty much what we saw in practice,” Tucker said on what he saw from Berger. “He runs hard, he’s got good vision, he usually falls forward on contact, and he when he gets out he can make some plays. He’s good out of the backfield catching the ball as well.”

As good of a debut as it was for Berger, the former Wisconsin Badger was not satisfied with his performance.

“I felt like I left a lot of yards on the field,” Berger said. “I had a dropped screen, which, you can’t let that happen, especially on third down. And one of the runs, I kind of tripped up and that’s just like a simple drill that we do in [practice] every day – just put you hand down, get back up and score.”

That’s just the attitude that Tucker is looking for – never satisfied, never comfortable.

Michigan State may not have Walker in the backfield in 2022, but they’ve got a guy they can rely on to pick up consistent yards and put pressure on a defense. That will do just fine.