Kirk Herbstreit is no stranger to the bright lights and big games of the Big Ten conference.
A quarterback at Ohio State in his own playing days, Herbstreit is now a color commentator for ESPN’s top college football broadcasting team.
He’s seen many a good team in his day, including this season. The Big Ten features three unbeaten teams in its East Division when it comes to conference play.
One of the unbeatens is Michigan State.
In a conference call leading up to this weekend’s matchup between unbeaten Michigan and MSU, Herbstreit had high praise for Mel Tucker’s squad.
“I think Michigan State has been the biggest surprise in the country, not just the Big Ten," Herbstreit said. “To think about where they were in Mel Tucker’s first year. Keep in mind, like a lot of other first-year coaches in 2020 - it’s a global pandemic, heavy restrictions, no spring football, cancel the season, oh no, now we’re going to have a season. And, it’s just unprecedented what he went through in his first year. They looked like, obviously, a severe work in progress.”
One of the biggest factors in this unbeaten start for the Spartans has been Tucker’s ability to use the transfer portal. The second-year coach has found several gems, but none bigger than star running back Kenneth Walker.
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“They’ve upgraded and taken advantage of the 2021 way of doing business, and now, they’ve got a confident football team,” Herbstreit said.
Walker has been mentioned among this season's Heisman Trophy candidates, rushing for 997 yards on 152 carries through seven games. He’s run for over 200 yards twice, and has scored a total of 10 touchdowns.
One familiar face who has taken on a bigger role for the Spartans is quarterback Payton Thorne, who has thrown for 1,701 yards and 15 touchdowns. His top target has been his former high school teammate Jayden Reed.
The defense has been solid as well, anchored by defensive end Jacub Panasiuk.
The players within the walls of MSU’s football building have bought into Tucker’s system. Now, analysts like Herbstreit are seeing what this program can be capable of.
“They could have lost a couple games, but to their credit, they found ways to win against Nebraska, they won against Indiana,” Herbstreit said. “Those games could have gone the other way. But, when you find ways to win games, your team starts to believe in your culture, starts to believe in your way of doing things, and I think that's where Michigan State is right now. I think they’ve become a really confident, dangerous team, and they're always tough in East Lansing.”