Friday, October 22, 2021

Column: MSU Football sits at the crossroads between two unexpected paths

October 11, 2021
<p>Spartans share a quick celebration after junior running back Kenneth Walker lll (9) makes a touchdown during the homecoming game against Western Kentucky on Oct. 2, 2021. </p>

Spartans share a quick celebration after junior running back Kenneth Walker lll (9) makes a touchdown during the homecoming game against Western Kentucky on Oct. 2, 2021.

Photo by Chandra Fleming | The State News

Michigan State spent the first month of the season regaining the attention of the Michigan State fanbase. After a disappointing start to the Mel Tucker era following a disappointing end to the Mark Dantonio era, the interest and expectations waned as the performance on the field did.

The members of the 2021 MSU football team reiterated time and time again in the weeks leading up to the season the confidence they had for the year. The confidence they had in the coaching staff and their approach and the trust they had in each other on the field.

But still, Michigan State fans approached the season with cautioned optimism, waiting to see what the team filled with new faces had in store. 

The team provided the fans with an immediate answer with an introduction to junior running back Kenneth Walker III, and a resounding victory over Northwestern. They marched through September and went to Coral Gables and put the nation on notice that the Spartans are feisty this year with a three-touchdown victory over Miami. 

They returned home and withstood a stout Nebraska defense thanks to some late-game heroics. The team avoided the supposed trip-up on Homecoming against Western Kentucky then rubbed the crust out of their eyes and woke up to a test early in Piscataway and beat Rutgers by two touchdowns.

After all of that, Michigan State is sitting pretty at 6-0 and ranked in the AP top-10 at the halfway point of the season. The last time Michigan State was undefeated after six weeks was 2015, when the Spartans went 8-0 before losing and eventually winning the Big Ten and going to the College Football Playoff. 

6-0 is pretty crazy after the painful 2020 campaign that resulted in a 2-5 record and some embarrassing defeats. The most optimistic Michigan State fan in the world would have not predicted this about two months ago if you asked them where they’d be at the season’s turning point.

Not only have the Spartans made it to 6-0 unscathed, which is remarkable, but they have done it demonstrably and with style. The Spartans have made quick work with their foes for the most part, outside of the scare from the Cornhuskers.

Michigan State boasts a +91 score differential through six games. The success has come from one of the most dangerous offenses in college football so far this year, led by the mesmerizing trio of Walker, junior wide receivers Jayden Reed and Jalen Nailor and timely stops from the defense led by freshman linebacker Cal Haladay and senior safety Xavier Henderson

After a year where turnovers felt as prevalent as touchdowns in the MSU offense, the Spartans can’t stop scoring thanks to the explosive harmony between the stars leading MSU. The balance between the passing and rushing game and the capability of both to score at any moment thanks to the talent on the field has quickly changed MSU’s offense to must-watch TV every Saturday. 

The passing game for MSU was anemic last year outside of the occasional magic from Reed or Nailor. Redshirt junior quarterback Rocky Lombardi, who now plays at Northern Illinois, struggled to throw to receivers instead of corners and the offense usually got stopped before it got started. There were glimpses of magic, but the results were not great.

This year, it has been anything but. With sophomore quarterback Payton Thorne at the helm, Michigan State has been able to complement its new friend from Wake Forest — we’ll get to him in a sec — thanks to Thorne’s ability to get the ball to the playmakers on a dime and not turn the ball over.

That might be underselling Thorne a bit, but the performance of his receivers really is the story. No matter where Thorne goes with the ball, the receiver is there and most likely brings it in. In the cases of Reed and Nailor, they provide that big play ability once the ball is in their hands. 

They both have the speed to compete as sprinters in track and field but brought their talents to the gridiron and Michigan State is reaping the rewards. Reed and Nailor have combined for 1,441 total yards and 14 touchdowns. Five of those touchdowns have been 60 yards or more.

Each of them have been the spark plug with big plays for MSU when they needed a kick, whether it was Reed against Nebraska or Nailor against Rutgers.

But to have harmony, there needs to be a second force.

And that force is Walker.

Walker has broken out as one of the best, if not the best players in the country after spending two years terrorizing the ACC at Wake Forest. He has reinvigorated MSU fans with life and interest in the program with his otherworldly season so far.

Walker burst into the new season with a 75-yard touchdown run on the first play of the season and surpassed MSU’s 2020 team rushing total in one game yet, and he hasn’t let up after that emphatic introduction. He leads the nation with 913 yards and nine touchdowns. 

His latest performance was another masterclass during the Rutgers game, this time for 233 yards and a 94-yard touchdown that could be the defining moment of a historic individual season. It was the longest touchdown run in MSU history. It’s another spot in the record books for Walker this year, and it probably won’t be the last. 

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The success attacking downfield in the passing game stems from the gravity that Walker brings when the ball is in his hands. As defenses commit more and more defenders to stop him, the more space that leaves for Reed and Nailor to cause absolute havoc. 

Even if the defenders commit to Walker, it doesn’t mean they are going to tackle him. Walker’s elite ability to stop and start by reading the opposing defense allows him to make defenders look slow when they commit to one side to stop him. 

Once Walker gets that inch of space, it’s showtime. He has proven time and time again that he cannot be tackled one on one as he jukes defenders and slides through tackles standing on the way to the endzone.

His ability to turn a three-yard run into points has reignited the excitement around the program from MSU fans who sat through the last painstaking five years. Walker’s gravitating effect goes past the opposing defense into the heart of the MSU fanbase and pulled them back to the excitement of the early 2010s again when the ball is in his hands. 

Walker is putting up the numbers and has the unforgettable moments to be showcased in New York for the Heisman Trophy Presentation in December. The last running back to win the award was Derrick Henry in 2015, and Walker is having a better season through six weeks. Through six games, Henry had 665 yards and 10 touchdowns. Walker has 913 yards and nine touchdowns. Walker could be the first running back to hoist the trophy in six years, and the first Spartan ever to do so.

Now, to compensate a bit, Michigan State still has quite the slate of games ahead of them, as mentioned before. With all due respect, Rutgers does not strike the same amount of fear as the other team that dons scarlet in the Big Ten East. The likes of Ohio State, Penn State and the University of Michigan will most likely be the toughest challenge MSU will face this season and a trip to Indiana could be a spoiler before the Wolverines come to town. 

But after the way Michigan State has reached the midway point of the season on the back of Walker’s historic start, it is hard to make a definitive prediction for what's next. MSU has defied expectations and turned heads and could be on its way to one of the most improbable seasons in memory. 

The Spartans are sitting atop the Big Ten East with their friends from Ann Arbor and a path of killers standing in their way. The results in the second half of the season will be the difference between bowl destinations for MSU now, who qualified for the postseason with its win this weekend.

MSU could respectfully bow out against the traditional powers of the Big Ten or continue to shock the college football world on the back of Walker, with its remarkable turnaround and cement themselves as the playbook of how to revive a program. Walker can become the poster child of the transfer portal if he can continue to be one of the nation's best and line his shelves with trophies.

Even if the former happens and Michigan State finishes with a few losses on the record, the season can be categorized as wildly successful. After being picked to finish near the bottom of the Big Ten and miss out on bowl season, MSU has already surpassed any expectations they had this year and it's only week six. Not bad for a team that hasn’t contended for a Big Ten championship appearance in half a decade. 

Michigan State is playing with house money at this point going into the home stretch. With a guaranteed 13th game and a vacation spot for MSU fans this winter, the season could become so much more. With the meat of the schedule still on their plate, MSU could have a feast that will never be forgotten.

The Spartans now sit at a crossroads between a fantastic story about a team on the come-up under a new coach or one of the best single-season turnarounds in college football history. We will know in about six weeks which path MSU will take this season, but both are welcome by MSU fans who are enjoying this unexpected ride.

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