Happy Day in Piscataway: Rehash & Analysis
Piscataway, NJ - Even on an untidy day, Michigan State’s explosiveness can be quite impressive.
The No. 11-ranked Spartans enjoyed record-breaking days and plays from wide receiver Jalen Nailor and running back Kenneth Walker III, along with steady, opportunistic play from quarterback Payton Thorne, and a defensive performance that was good enough when it needed to be, in scoring a decisive 31-13 victory over Rutgers, Saturday at SHI Stadium.
Michigan State (6-0) gained retribution for an unsightly loss to Rutgers in the season opener of 2020, Mel Tucker’s debut as the Spartan head coach.
Now, Michigan State has a chance for more reprisal when the Spartans play at Indiana next week, a year after the Hoosiers beat Michigan State 24-0 and emerged as an upstart contender in the Big Ten East. Now, Michigan State wants to forward its claim for that role in 2021, and the Spartans look like they have the goods to make a run at it.
“The team is hungry,” said Michigan State head coach Mel Tucker. “We know we still have a lot to prove, and we haven’t played our best football yet, so we are going to continue to work it.”
After this performance, dressed up with 588 yards of total offense, future opponents can start to become a little more concerned about what Michigan State’s “best football” might look like.
On this day, Michigan State became only the fifth team in FBS history to have a 300-yard passer, a 200-yard rusher and a 200-yard receiver in the same game.
“This team has a lot of character,” Tucker said. “It’s a fun group to be around day-to-day and they respond well to coaching. Leaders are starting to emerge. You see guys starting to get better, improve in certain areas. They see that and it’s kind of a momentum thing, like a snowball.”
Despite losing a fumble deep in its own territory, botching a fake punt, missing a field goal late in the first half, throwing an interception, and nine penalties, Michigan State held an edge most of the day at the line of scrimmage and was much more talented at the skill positions.
Nailor had five catches for 221 yards with three TDs, setting a stadium record for most receiving yards, breaking a mark held by Larry Fitzgerald of Pittsburgh.
Walker rushed for 233 yards, including an amazing 94-yard gallop which broke the game open in the third quarter, giving Michigan State a 28-13 lead after the Spartans had spent the early moments of the second half bottled up in its own territory and in danger of letting Rutgers (3-3) hang around.
The 94-yarder is the longest play from scrimmage in Michigan State history.
Walker’s response when asking if he had ever had one long before: “I believe I had a 96-yarder at Wake (Forest),” he said quietly, sheepishly.
But he may never had had one as exciting as this one. He exchanged a handshake with Nailor before crossing the goal line.
“That was the first time (I’ve done that),” Walker said. “I guess I got a little too excited.”
Thorne completed 16 of 27 passes for 339 yards with three touchdowns and one interception.
“It’s awesome to play with those guys, having the versatility that our offense has, having two guys on the outside like that, and Tre Mosley is playing really well as well,” Thorne said. “He is doing a lot of great things, blocking well, running good routes, making good plays and his name is one that gets overlooked a little bit.
“Every play, you never know when it’s going to break.”
HOW IT WENT DOWN
Nailor exploded for three long touchdown receptions in the first half as Michigan State took a 21-13 lead into the locker room.
Nailor tied the game at 7-7 on a 63-yard TD reception. Thorne faked a hitch to Jayden Reed in the flat while Nailor checked up like he was going to block. Then Nailor accelerated down the sideline, open for the deep shot on a well-conceived play.
Nailor gave Michigan State a 14-10 lead on another 63-yard TD reception. This time, he sprinted past Rutgers Cornerback Tre Avery in press coverage and made a good catch and a beautiful over-the-shoulder throw. Nailor then made Avery miss and outran everyone from the right sideline to opposite corner of the goal line.
Nailor extended the lead to 21-13 on a 65-yard TD catch off a flea-flicker. It was the third time this year Michigan State has executed a flea flicker for a touchdown, as the Spartans did it against Youngstown State and Nebraska earlier in the season.
Michigan State kicker Matt Coghlin hit a 35-yard field goal late in the fourth quarter, setting a record for most career field goals in school history with 72, breaking Brett Swenson’s mark.
FIRST HALF HICCUPS
Michigan State out-gained Rutgers 387-182 in the first half but only had a 21-13 lead to show for it.
Michigan State left points on the board, or set up Rutgers with points, via the following miscues and missteps in the first half:
* A failed fake field goal on the opening drive, with holder Bryce Barringer attempting to keep the ball around the right side on fourth-and-six. Tucker indicated that a receiver was supposed to be available for Barringer but was obstructed from getting out on his route. Barringer was stopped far short of the line of gain.
“That actually was a good play defensively,” Tucker said. “We thought we had what we wanted, the look we wanted, but we weren’t able to get one of our players out into the route, so we ended up getting shut down on that play. They did a really good defending what we were attempting to do. That was a win for them and a loss for us.”
* While deciding whether to attempt a 52-yard field goal at the end of MSU’s third possession or go for it on fourth-and-five, the Spartans were late in getting a play call in, and then did not call time out in time to halt the play clock. A 5-yard delay of game penalty resulted in a punt than a fourth-down attempt or a field goal attempt.
* A bad snap by center Nick Samac on third-and-nine in the second quarter went from bad to worse when Thorne failed to cover the fumble, and then Michigan State offensive tackle Luke Campbell attempted to pick it up and advance it, only to be hit and stripped for a second fumble on the play. Rutgers recovered at the Michigan State 13-yard line.
MSU’s defense rose up with a good stand, keyed by a good pursuit tackle from LB Noah Harvey on first down and handsy pass defense from Marqui Lowery on third down to hold Rutgers to a field goal and a 14-13 Spartan lead.
* Two Michigan State personal fouls keyed Rutgers’ second scoring drive, resulting in a 10-7 Knights lead in the second quarter on a Valentino Ambrosio 26-yard field goal,.
Jacub Panasiuk’s late hit along the sideline, a call disputed by Michigan State fans, turned a third-down incompletion into first-and-10 at the Michigan State 36. On the next play, defensive tackle Jacob Slade was flagged for a personal foul hand to the face, moving hte ball to the Michigan State 21-yard line.
* A 10-yard TD run late in the first half by Walker was erased by a holding call. Michigan State ended up missing a field goal on the last play of the second half.
DEFENSE HELD FIRM
Michigan State held Rutgers scoreless in the second half and contained the Scarlet Knights to 377 yards of total offense. Michigan State stiffened in the red zone on three occasions, resulting in two field goal attempts and one turnover on downs.
Sophomore nickel back Darius Snow led Michigan State in tackles for the fist time in his career.
“The first half didn’t go the way we wanted it to,” Snow said. “It’s about standing your ground, bend but don’t break, and we were able to get stops when we needed to.”
Michigan State registered four sacks against a Rutgers team that ranked among the best in the Big Ten in preventing sacks. Freshman defensive tackle Simeon Barrow led Michigan State with two sacks. Maverick Hansen had one. Drew Jordan and Panasiuk combined on one.
“I felt like we played better on defense in the second half in so many ways,” Tucker said.
More to come on SpartanMag.com.