Michigan State started the season off just how it wanted Friday night, defeating Northwestern 38-21 in Evanston, Illinois.
There was lots of hype surrounding junior running back Kenneth Walker III when he announced his commitment to Michigan State after transferring from Wake Forest and rightfully so.
It took just one play, the first play from scrimmage, for that excitement to come to reality. Receiving a handoff from redshirt sophomore Payton Thorne, who beat graduate student Anthony Russo for the starting quarterback job, Walker bounced to the outside, made a Wildcat miss, turned on the jets and was gone.
The defending Big Ten West champions then came out on offense and had an explosive play of its own. On a third and long, Northwestern starting quarterback Hunter Johnson connected on a 41-yard completion to sophomore Bryce Kirtz. The Spartans defense stood strong forcing a field goal try, which was missed by graduate student Charlie Kuhbander from 44 yards deep.
MSU went right back to business feeding the ball to the man that gave the Spartans its early lead. With a 23-yard run from Walker and a spectacular contested catch down the sideline by redshirt junior wide receiver Jayden Reed on a ball that perhaps should not have been thrown, Michigan State found itself on Northwestern’s three yard line.
They turned to who else, but Walker, who waltzed his way into the end zone for his second score of the game and a 14-0 MSU lead not even halfway through the first quarter.
Up until the last few minutes of the half, Michigan State’s defense was lights out. They were especially stupendous defending the run, leaving Northwestern with -2 rushing yards through one quarter of play. With a fourth down stop on Northwestern’s second drive of the game, Scottie Hazleton’s defense was rolling.
MSU jumped out to a 21-0 lead early in the second on a four play drive. After scrambling for a 26-yard gain, Thorne was hit out of bounds late, tacking on an extra 14 yards to the end of the run. One play later, Thorne dumped a screen pass to sophomore running back Jordon Simmons who ran into the endzone untouched from 14 yards out.
The Spartans’ defense finally bent in the second quarter from a long drive by the Northwestern offense that took up nearly half the quarter. With two fourth down conversions, including one on Michigan State’s goal line, Northwestern got on the board on a pass from Johnson to a wide open tight end Trey Pugh with less than a minute on the clock, leaving the halftime score at 21-7 in favor of the green and white.
Trying to copy Michigan State’s first play from scrimmage, Northwestern wanted a house call run from sophomore running back Evan Hull to start the second half and almost got it. Hull sliced up the middle of MSU’s defense and was in the clear for a quick Northwestern touchdown. However, the speed of redshirt junior cornerback Kalon Gervin caught up to Hull and he made a touchdown-saving tackle from behind, limiting Hull’s run to 49 yards and no score.
MSU’s defense bounced back, forcing another 4th down in its own territory. Yet again, they caught a break with Kuhbander missing his second field goal try of the game, this time from 38 yards out.
The Spartan offense rode the momentum of the missed kick with a methodical, well-executed drive drawn up from offensive coordinator Jay Johnson. All three wide receivers for MSU in redshirt junior Jalen Nailor, redshirt sophomore Tre Mosely and Reed made catches to move the chains, but it was ultimately Walker who beat a Wildcat defender around the corner and to the pylon for his third touchdown of the night.
As rain began to fall with the beginning of the final quarter, the Wildcats got back into the game with another long drive. Yet again, it was capped off with a short touchdown catch by Pugh from five yards out, cutting MSU's lead to 14 with 11 minutes to play.
When the Spartans needed it most to grind the clock and potentially go up three possessions, the Spartans turned to its star of the night. On the second play of the ensuing drive, Walker busted through a generous hole from the offensive line for a 50 yard gain, pushing him over the 200 yard marker. MSU senior kicker Matt Coughlin finished off the drive with a successful 37 yard field goal, putting the dagger in a victory for MSU.
While the numbers do not necessarily jump off the page, it was a strong start from Thorne, finishing with 185 yards and a touchdown in addition to an extra 28 yards on the ground. His passes had a zip on them, his vision was great and he ultimately played with a confidence to deliver passes when the Spartans needed it.
It was Walker's game though, who shined brightly under the Ryan Field lights. Tagging on a fourth touchdown in the closing minutes of the game, Walker finished his Spartan debut with 264 yards and four touchdowns.
Michigan State will look to build on its convincing win in Evanston as they welcome fans back to Spartan Stadium Saturday, Sept. 11 against Youngstown State.
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