Mel Tucker wants his teams to set the tone early with aggressive plays.
The first play of the game was a 75-yard flea flicker from Payton Thorne to Jayden Reed to give MSU the lead 10 seconds into the game, showing that MSU was not going to play with its food against a lower-level opponent.
However, ferocity was also evident on the defensive side of the ball. On Youngstown State’s first play, Xavier Henderson blitzed off the right side of the line and brought down Demeatric Crenshaw, his high school teammate at Pickerington Central in Ohio, for a sack.
It was the beginning of another dominant performance for Henderson and the Michigan State defense, who held Youngstown State to 14 points and 304 yards of total offense. Henderson led the unit to its dismantling of the Penguins' offense with eight tackles, a sack and an interception.
“The plan was to come out and attack and be aggressive,” Tucker said. “The opponents change but the standard does not change… I don't know how else you would go into a game.”
The defining moment of Michigan State’s dominant play was from Henderson. Early in the second quarter, Youngstown State was driving and looked to cut into MSU’s 14-0 lead when Henderson snatched all of Youngstown State’s hope, and the ball itself, to keep Michigan State rolling.
Angelo Grose got beat by a double move in the slot and Crenshaw tried to capitalize and find his open receiver for a touchdown, but Henderson had other plans. He came across from his centerfield position to cut the pass off and reached back, snagging it with one hand for a jaw-dropping interception.
“We was up in the deep middle and I just kind of put my hand up there,” Henderson said. “The new gloves are kinda sticky, so if it goes in your hands you'll come down with it. Unfortunately, I hate to do my boy Meech like that. Demeatric (Crenshaw) was my starting quarterback in high school.”
Crenshaw and the Penguins did not sling the ball around Spartan Stadium much, especially after Henderson’s interception. The bulk of their offense was done on the ground, with 167 of their 304 yards and both touchdowns coming on the ground.
Michigan State focused on stuffing the running attack from the Penguins after they rushed for over 300 yards in week one. They held starting running back Jaleel McLaughlin to 40 yards on the ground and Crenshaw, a dual-threat signal-caller, to 78 yards on 18 carries.
Not to mention, that was without two of the main run stoppers on the defensive line. Defensive ends Drew Beesley and Drew Jordan were not on the field with the Spartans today due to undisclosed injuries, meaning that the younger men were out there for MSU on the edge.
Sophomore Jeff Pietrowski got the start alongside Jacub Panasiuk at the defensive end in their absence and ran with the opportunity. He lived in the Penguins backfield all game and disrupted the rushing attack, totaling 1.5 tackles for loss and his first career sack.
“This week, we were focused and everyone's coaching each other up on the sidelines,” Pietrowski said. “I got to start but there's a whole bunch of guys who played and we're all trying to help each other out and raise the level and hopefully we get those guys back soon.”
Pietrowski saw action in 2020 and week 1 against Northwestern, but this has been his biggest and most important game so far in a green and white uniform.
"To have the fans back was awesome for me personally, this was my first experience," Pietrowski said. "Being a freshman last year we played home games but there wasn't any fans so it was my first time in Spartan Stadium with a full house and it was awesome, it was electric so we really appreciate the fans coming out and the students support."
Michigan State was not a complete force against the Penguins' running attack, though. With bad angles from the secondary and not filling proper gaps on runs, these allowed McLaughlin and running back Christian Turner to move the chains and generate some sort of offense for Youngstown State.
“We knew it was gonna be a physical game,” Henderson said. “We really didn't do the best at stopping the run and so that's something we gotta clean up and we'll take a look at it.”
The defense will have to improve before next week’s road trip to Coral Gables to take on the Miami Hurricanes, but Tucker is excited for the work ahead.
“I'm excited about our football team and I feel a tremendous amount of energy from our fans, from our students, from Spartan nation behind this football team,” Tucker said. “We're going to continue to grow and get better and that's what it's all about.”
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