Kenneth Walker started October a lot like he started September. MSU’s “K9 Dawg” plays tough, with speed, and has some a game breaking agility Spartan Nation has not seen in years. Walker’s effort and grit on the Touchdown to put MSU up 28-13 was another entry for the long highlight reel that’s already made a name for Walker on the national stage. His ankle looked hurt earlier in the 2nd Quarter, and MSU might have been wise to rest him more tonight than they did, but Walker kept grinding and finished the day with a third Touchdown and 126-yards.
The core of the Spartans Wide Receiver playing group is leading from the front. Jayden Reed had another monster day catching passes, but also looked a bit hobbled near the end of the 1st Half. Jalen Nailor had a big night, and Trey Mosely was in the mix too. MSU’s wide out play is firmly on the rise under the guide of Coach Courtney Hawkins. Of course, it helps when your Quarterback is playing as well as Payton Thorne these days.
Payton Thorne wanted a bounce-back week, and delivered. His unit put up plenty of points and left some to find in the future for Homecoming night. Thorne was precise, often patient within the play, and on point for 327-yards passing, 31-rushing, and a Touchdown each way. Thorne is now doing things few young Quarterbacks have ever done around MSU. He continues to improve, appears poised beyond his experience level, and keeps confirming that he’s got the elusive “it” factor so few Quarterbacks can display over time. His stats are getting big in a hurry, but his head appears grounded. Payton Thorne is no fluke. As he gets more starts and experience under his belt, his Michigan State’s Offense should get only get better.
This unit tightened some things up as the calendar flipped to October, but still has plenty of work to do. They look to be going for a traditionally “bend but don’t break” Defense, at least for the time being. If you’re out there hoping this Defense will quickly transform to a lockdown unit like we saw during the best Dantonio years, it probably ain’t happening anytime soon. Not this year, not this soon. And that’s okay, you can win games with the “bend but don’t break.”
Mel Tucker and Scottie Hazelton appear in lock-step when it comes to what they’re looking for from the 2021 Defense. That bodes well for steady improvement as the leaves start to peak and Big Ten games get more serious. They clearly want to stop the big play, force opponents into becoming one-dimensional, tackle well enough get off the field, and of course convert turnovers when they become possible. There are signs of a pragmatic work in progress.
Look how many new names are getting snaps for this Defense now. That maybe the best sign of the competitive health Mel Tucker is trying to rebuild. Just as Urban Meyer built at Ohio State, Mel Tucker began molding his program with an atmosphere of competition at Michigan State from day one. That type of climate began to fade away from the Spartan Defense sometime in 2018. Since Tucker arrived, it’s come back in a hurry. As MSU continues to build a roster to fit the lofty goals Spartan Football always on that side of the ball, competition will remain. We should not underestimate the competitive health of this Defense as it strives for in-season improvement.
This unit found a game breaker for the first time since Keshawn Martin set the bar so high about a decade ago. Apparently Western Kentucky didn’t see the tape of Reed last week, opting to kick it his way after the game’s first drive, to their peril. WKU didn’t stay in their coverage lanes well, followed Reed’s early zig-zag a little closely, and once Noah Harvey completed the final block of the play, Reed’s NFL speed took over to close the 88-yard house call.
This unit is making a difference in MSU’s 5-0 start. The Punt game has become a strength, the return game is making noise, and the unit as a whole is doing a relatively consistent job of avoiding the kind of big mistakes that can drastically flip momentum in the College game.
From the explosive start, this team had “the look” tonight. The look of a football team coming together, a team fully bought in to their mission, and the look of a team that is learning how to stay focused on the task at hand. If Michigan State players knew about some of the early losses from higher ranked teams today, it didn’t show. MSU’s sound win and some significant losses over the day should lead to Michigan State Football safely ranked in the Top-15 next week, maybe even the Top-10. After half a Quarter tonight there were no worries about player’s focus. After a 42-16 first-half, there was little question. But Mel Tucker will surely have something to coach after a less than sparkling second-half.
This week’s test, starting sometime Sunday night, looms ever larger. MSU is going to a hostile Rutgers environment. RU got smoked badly enough by Ohio State today (52-13) that they likely come back next week with a sharper focus. Rutgers either beat MSU last year, or MSU lost to Rutgers, depending how you scored it. Either way, Greg Schiano will remind his team all week that they can beat MSU and get their season back on track in one-week. If Michigan State starts looking ahead toward the bigger names on their schedule ahead, they will derail themselves in that same one-week.
Spartan Football now has a legit shot to play for a 10-win season. What seemed impossible five weeks ago is now a part of this season’s potential. Yet, this team cannot get back to a double-digit win total if they lose much focus, get distracted, or start to think they’ve somehow already “made it.” That’s the fresh challenge for Mel Tucker and Spartan Football now, one Tucker looked to be trying to get ahead of early in the 4th Quarter on the MSU sideline.
Early October is a good time to look back at the College Football pre-season rankings and laugh. Dig deeper and you’ll surely chuckle at some still-overrated teams. Ones that either have not lost yet, or maybe lost to a highly ranked team in the season’s first weeks. Those danglers should be trimmed away during the season’s second month.
Pre-season rankings are a necessary evil, but they aren’t worth much more than a glance in September. They’re filled with far more hype than merit. They’re picked by too many people that may have an angle, a reputation they want to develop or maintain, and often a sense of pride they want to protect. Thankfully, there are games, win-loss records, and conference championships to be played for from here. As those begin to sift and settle in October, most of the rankings will begin to make more sense.