Michigan State has had a history of producing some solid wide receivers and running backs. You can look back to the early 2000’s with NFL talents like Andre Rison and Plaxico Burress and to recent history with players like Bennie Fowler and Tony Lippett who have carved out roles for themselves on NFL rosters. Then running backs like Le’Veon Bell have been able to thrive as stars in the pros.
Despite MSU football's loss against Penn State on Saturday, the skill positions showed the college football world that not only do they have the individual talent, but they are a collective unit of young athletes that can make plays.
That all started with the most experienced pass catcher on the offense Jalen Nailor. Nailor finished the day with 6 catches, 100 yards and 2 touchdowns. After two dismal drives, Nailor jump started the offense with a 45-yard strike to give the Spartans their first lead of the game.
Michigan State Head Coach Mel Tucker is optimistic for his future.
“He's grown as a player, I really like him and I like what he has to offer,” Tucker said. “He's got a bright future. We just got to keep chopping.”
Throughout his career, Nailor has been known as the speedy deep threat, but on his second touchdown grab of the day, Nailor jumped and caught a ball over a defender in the redzone to put the Spartans up 21-10.
Rather than chalk it up as a good day, Nailor approached his coach and had the awareness to tell him what the defense was giving him to try and exploit their gameplan.
“When I talked to him during the game, he said that he was getting some soft coverage, and so we were able to hit him underneath,” Tucker said. “He was able to catch the ball, tight turn, get some yards after the catch and things like that. He's got to be able to do that. He's got to be able to work underneath. We all know that he can run by people as well. Maybe people are going to have to decide how they can play him and that depends on who they have to match up against him.”
Redshirt freshman quarterback Payton Thorne got the first start of his career and took full advantage of the opportunity, finishing with 325 yards passing, three touchdowns and one interception.
With the wide receivers playing at a high level, it made Thorne’s big day even easier.
“Everyone's got to be ready,” Thorne said. “Everyone's got to be locked in and ready to go. I thought those guys were ready, and I was excited to get them in the mix for sure.”
It wasn’t just Nailor making plays in the first half, as Thorne’s former high school teammate Jayden Reed finished with six catches for 76 yards, and redshirt freshman Tre’Von Morgan, who stands at a towering 6-foot-7, snagged a pass from Thorne over multiple defenders to get his first touchdown catch of his young career.
Michigan State Head Coach Mel Tucker was excited to see so many of his wide receivers make plays in this game against Penn State.
“We've been optimistic about our receiving crew all year,” Tucker said. “We've worked to develop guys. You see Morgan, he showed up today. Montorie (Foster) has been out there. We've developed some tight ends that can go out there and play. Ricky’s (White) been out, at some point. He'll be back. We feel like we got some weapons out there.”
The run game was something that generated some success early on as true freshman Jordon Simmons ran for a career high 72 yards on just 14 carries, averaging above five yards per carry.
Coming off an injury, Simmons cemented himself as the lead carrier against Penn State after a strong start.
“He's got a good burst through the hole and acceleration, that's what we need,” Tucker said. “He's got really good quickness, and when you hand him the ball and there's a hole there, he's going to hit it.”
After the first half though, those plays ceased to exist as the Nittany Lions outscored the Spartans 29-3 in the second half. Going forward, Tucker hopes to develop some consistency at those positions, and that starts with executing.
“It was absolutely execution,” Tucker said. “From our stand standpoint, I think that they (Penn State's defense) were maybe a little more aggressive but there's plays we made, and we still made plays in the second half. We just weren't able to make them on a consistent basis.”
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If the Spartans are able to play in the Big Ten Champions week matchup next Saturday, they will look to establish consistency in their young but talented group of receivers to end the season.
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