Wednesday, December 8, 2021

Gridders top CMU despite early troubles

September 9, 2001
Senior tailback Little John Flowers (23), right runs past Central senior linebacker Finley Carter (3) Saturday during the game against the Chippewas in Spartan Stadium. MSU defeated Central 35-21. —

The Spartan Chariot arrived late for Saturday’s season-opening football game, bolting across the field mere minutes before kickoff.

It wasn’t the only late arrival.

MSU’s focus didn’t make an appearance until the end of the first half of a sloppy 35-21 win over Central Michigan.

Picking up from where they left off in 2000, the Spartans still had trouble with special teams and penalties - and that’s quite an understatement.

CMU linebacker James King blocked a NCAA Division IA-record four punts - two that led to touchdowns in the fourth quarter. But it wasn’t enough to give the Chippewas their third upset of the Spartans in the last 10 years.

“It was our first game and we played like it was our first game,” MSU head coach Bobby Williams said. “As I said, it was really unfortunate that we had breakdowns in the punting because it really took away from the overall performance of the defense.”

In the first quarter, MSU committed three penalties for 14 yards and sophomore receiver Charles Rogers dropped two punts.

But senior tight end Chris Baker showed promise in his return to action after suffering torn cartilage in his left knee on Aug. 20.

Baker caught a 9-yard pass - with one hand - from sophomore quarterback Jeff Smoker to help give MSU 7-0 lead at 5:40 in the first quarter.

Defensively, the Spartans were able to stop CMU on its first four possessions.

Then King broke through for the first time and blocked senior Craig Jarrett’s punt, putting the Chippewas on MSU’s 18-yard-line. Quarterback Derrick Vickers hit tight end Tory Humphrey with a touchdown pass on the first play of the drive to tie the game 7-7.

But Smoker helped the Spartans counter and pull away with an acrobatic 3-yard dive into the end zone at the 4:23 mark of the second quarter.

The game was the debut of MSU’s two-quarterback system. Senior quarterback Ryan Van Dyke saw limited action throughout the game, connecting on three of his six pass attempts for 94 yards and two touchdowns. Smoker completed 15 of 23 passes for 196 yards and one touchdown.

Van Dyke tossed a 28-yard touchdown pass to senior tailback Little John Flowers to extend MSU’s lead to 21-7 with 2:51 left in the first half. He also tossed a 53-yard bomb to freshman receiver Roderick Maples, putting MSU up 28-7 at halftime.

Van Dyke said he was pleased with his performance, but he knows there’s still room for improvement.

“It was all right,” Van Dyke said. “I didn’t play mistake-free football by any means. We all have a lot to work on.”

To open the second half, MSU sophomore tailback T.J. Duckett barreled his way 31 yards into the end zone to put MSU up 35-7 with 11:37 remaining in the third quarter.

But Chip safety Joe Ballard recovered one of King’s punt blocks and ran 17 yards for the score to make it 35-14 with 9:13 left in the game.

King said he was proud of his team’s performance covering punts.

“It was a team effort,” King said. “It took all ten players. If everyone doesn’t hit their gaps in time, I don’t have a window. They did a good job, and I was able to make some plays.”

Less than three minutes later, King blocked another punt, leading to a 36-yard touchdown return by defensive back Omari Colen to put the Chippewas within two scores at 35-21.

But on CMU’s final drive, Vickers threw a fourth-down roll-out pass intended for receiver Willie Hill that went out-of-bounds, sealing MSU’s win with 1:39 to play.

CMU head coach Mike DeBord said his team will still stay optimistic.

“We’re not going to hang our heads,” DeBord said. “We’re going to keep fighting. We’ve got the opportunity to have a good football team.”

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