No. 12 Michigan State played through injury, illness and a snow storm to beat Penn State, 30-27, to win the Land-Grant Trophy!
It was a remarkable effort for Mel Tucker and the Spartans, who were without several starters on both sides of the ball due to the aforementioned injuries and illness. Yet, even with a reduced roster, Michigan State reached the 10-win plateau for the first time since the 2017 season.
The Spartans finish the regular season 10-2 overall and 7-2 in Big Ten play after being projected to win just 4.5 games by the oddsmakers this past summer.
Michigan State will have a chance to earn its 11th win in what should be a high-caliber bowl game, but first we look back at Five Takeaways from this victory over Penn State.
1. Kenneth Walker III returns to form
With a big early deficit and a nagging ankle injury, Kenneth Walker III wasn't able to showcase his ability much last week in the loss to Ohio State. But the junior tailback bounced back today against the Nittany Lions. Walker clearly still isn't 100 percent, but he toughed out 138 rushing yards on 30 carries and a touchdown in this one. We didn't know if the Heisman Trophy contender would be available today, with all the speculation surrounding injuries and illness leading up to this game. It's rumored that Walker did, in fact, have flu-like symptoms today, which makes his performance all the more impressive. If this is the last time Spartan fans get to see Walker play in Spartan Stadium, the junior left them with a memorable performance.
2. Payton Thorne with a gritty performance
The redshirt sophomore quarterback wasn't perfect today, but he gritted out a real solid performance in the snow. Thorne went 19-for-30 passing for 268 yards and 2 touchdowns. The Spartans' signal caller took a huge hit on a scramble in the first half, but remained in the game and ended up making a sizeable impact in the run game. Thorne carried the rock 8 times for 39 yards and a score. His big mistake came early in the third quarter, when he threw behind Jayden Reed on an 'out route' which resulted in an interception returned for a touchdown. Thorne bounce back on the next drive, which including a big conversion on a 4th and 3 run from the quarterback. On that same drive, Thorne snuck into the endzone from one yard out on a 3rd and goal to give Michigan State a 23-20 lead with 2:14 left in the third quarter.
3. Third-down defense steps up
The Spartans' defense had really struggled to get off the field on third down this season, but Michigan State got the job done today. Penn State was held to 5-for-13 on third down today. Getting off the field when you have opportunities is crucial, especially in the modern age of college football, and Michigan State mostly did that today. It's been a tough year, particularly for the Spartans' secondary, but this was a step in the right direction for Mel Tucker and his defensive unit as we move into bowl preparation and then the offseason.
4. Mel Tucker must fix his secondary
We've been harping on this topic all season long. We're tired of writing about it, you're tired of reading about it, but we must address it. Actually, it's Mel Tucker than must address this in the offseason. Even with all the snow acting as an extra defender, the Spartans still struggled to defend the pass. Nittany Lion quarterback Sean Clifford threw for 313 yards on 23-of-34 passing and 3 touchdowns. Penn State wide receiver Jahan Dotson had a big day, with 8 catches for 137 yards and a pair of scores. What Tucker has done in just two short years in East Lansing is remarkable, but fixing the secondary has to be at the top of his "To Do" list heading into Year 3.
5. Overcoming adversity
This has been a special season for Michigan State, but in no way, shape or form did it come easy. The Spartans overcame so much this season. Today alone, Michigan State was without several key players including CB Charles Brantley, LB Quavaris Crouch, DT Simeon Barrow, WR Jalen Nailor, G Matt Carrisk, LT Jarrett Horst, TE Tyler Hunt and others. The Spartans also bounced back after a devastating and embarrassing 56-7 loss last week at Ohio State. It would have been easy for Michigan State to lay down after last week, but Mel Tucker and his ball club went right back to work and sent this senior class out as winners in Spartan Stadium. A remarkable job by the head coach and his staff this season.