Wednesday, December 8, 2021

Spartans stumble to victory

September 10, 2001
Sophomore quarterback Jeff Smoker is tackled during a three-yard run for a touchdown as Central Michigan defensive back Bryan Keim (12), corner back Tedaro France (1) and defensive end Bill Brookshire (55) look on during the second quarter of the game at Spartan Stadium on Saturday. —

Saturday’s postgame buzzword from head coach Bobby Williams was “breakdowns” and there were plenty of them in the messy 35-21 win over Central Michigan.

Two dropped punt returns, an NCAA Division I-A record-tying four blocked punts by Central linebacker James King and 11 MSU penalties all flashed signs of weakness around Spartan Stadium like a neon sign.

But there still were signs of potential - especially since MSU (1-0) scored its most points in a game since the 2000 Florida Citrus Bowl.

And its defense, which was ranked at No. 22 in the nation at the end of last year, also showed bright spots, giving up only one touchdown.

“I have to give our defense a lot of credit because we got into some bad situations and they got some plays on us, but overall those guys really held together,” Williams said.

In under three minutes late in the fourth quarter, safety Joe Ballard and backup linebacker Omari Colen each returned a blocked punt for a touchdown to cut the lead to 14 with 6:41 remaining.

Senior linebacker Josh Thornhill, who had nine tackles in the win, said there was no explanation for letting Central (1-1) back into the game.

“It was very disappointing,” he said. “The score doesn’t tell the real story. Central Michigan is a good football team, but the bottom line is that we have to stay in the game.”

Central made one final attempt to win, until MSU stopped its seven-play drive with 1:39 left to play.

On fourth down, Central quarterback Derrick Vickers threw an incomplete pass to receiver Will Hill to put the game out of reach. Vickers finished the game completing 18-of-36 passes for 122 yards and a touchdown.

Despite the overall shaky performance, Williams said he was impressed with how the Spartans handled themselves on the field.

“One thing this game tells me is that I think this team has matured a little bit,” he said. “I think there have been times in the past when we have had breakdowns like this and we have lost the game.”

Saturday’s matchup with the Chippewas marked the debut of MSU’s revamped passing game, which helped open up the field for receivers and junior tailback T.J. Duckett.

Five Spartan players caught two or more passes in the win as sophomore starting quarterback Jeff Smoker and senior Ryan Van Dyke shared time.

Smoker completed 15-of-23 attempts for a game high 196 yards and one touchdown. Van Dyke completed three passes for 94 yards and two touchdowns.

After sitting out last year because of academic ineligibility, sophomore receiver Charles Rogers saw his first action as a Spartan. He had the jitters early on, dropping his first two punt returns, but he finished the game with three catches for 72 yards.

Rogers graded his performance pretty well, especially because he hasn’t played an official game in more than a year.

“I wanted to come here and make a statement,” he said. “It has been a long year for me sitting out. I felt that I had a pretty good game, and I’m happy with my results.”

His presence also made a difference for Heisman Trophy candidate Duckett. The variation of three, four and five receiver formations helped Duckett gain 120 yards on 22 carries and a touchdown.

MSU was locked at seven with Central until the 4:23 mark of the second quarter, when Smoker dodged a couple of tacklers and took a bold flip into the end zone.

Adjusting to a new scheme might have been one of the reasons MSU struggled to score early, Duckett said.

“Using all the (new) formations in an actual game situation might have been why we had so many mistakes,” he said. “I don’t know how to change that or how to improve that, but we were able to move the ball out there, so I think we handled it pretty well.”

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