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FINAL: Big plays fuel MSU's 31-13 victory over Rutgers

October 9, 2021
<p>Wide receiver Jalen Nailor, 8, attempts to receive a pass in a game against Rutgers on Oct. 24, 2020. Defensive back Tre Avery, 21, nearly intercepts the pass.</p>

Wide receiver Jalen Nailor, 8, attempts to receive a pass in a game against Rutgers on Oct. 24, 2020. Defensive back Tre Avery, 21, nearly intercepts the pass.

Photo by Alyte Katilius | The State News

Did you know that the Michigan State offense liked big plays?

Well if you hadn’t noticed through MSU’s first five games, you might’ve noticed today in the Spartans’ 31-13 victory over Rutgers. Michigan State’s first four touchdowns were all over 60 yards.

Junior wide receiever Jalen Nailor and sophomore quarterback Payton Thorne were the stars of the show for the Spartans. Nailor had three receiving touchdowns in the first half of 63, 63, and 65 yards to get the Spartans off to the races after a slow start and Walker had the only touchdown of the second half on a 94-yard run in the third quarter. 

Michigan State got off to a slow start against the Scarlet Knights for the second year in a row. The Spartans looked sluggish in the overcast and sparsely-filled SHI stadium at kickoff and the first quarter showed it.

MSU started with the ball and moved the ball comfortably into Rutgers’ territory before being stopped at the 28, setting up a field goal for graduate student kicker Matt Coghlin. The Spartans trotted out the field goal unit for a 43-yarder, which would have been the kick that placed Coghlin atop the list of career field goals at MSU.

Redshirt senior punter Bryce Baringer took the snap but got up and tucked it himself rather than set up Coghlin and was stuffed by the Rutgers field goal unit, leaving the Spartans with no points. Rutgers immediately capitalized on the MSU’s special teams gaffe and wide receiver Aron Cruickshank scored on a four-yard run to give the Scarlet Knights an early 7-0 lead.

MSU seemed to have survived the worst of it and answered back immediately on the next drive. Thorne connected with Nailor on a 63-yard pass for a touchdown. Nailor caught Rutgers cornerback napping with a slick double-move to run free past the Rutgers secondary to tie the game at 7.

Michigan State was not sailing smoothly, however, after stabilizing the ship with a touchdown. MSU got the ball moving again on its next possession before stalling out again in Rutgers territory. Instead of attempting a 52-yard field goal, MSU decided to punt which went for a touchback and a net yardage of 15 yards. 

Rutgers capitalized on MSU’s special teams mistake again, converting a field goal to take a 10-7 lead after MSU kept the offense on the field with a pair of personal foul penalties on the MSU defensive line. 

Michigan State, again, did not falter after Rutgers threw a punch. MSU answered the Rutgers field goal with a score of its own in under two minutes to retake the lead. Thorne found Nailor once again, this time as he was in one-on-one coverage on the MSU sideline. Nailor stopped on a dime to make the catch, cut inside and sped past the Rutgers secondary to score and give MSU a 14-10 lead.

MSU followed up the period of good play with another boneheaded mistake. After forcing a punt, Thorne fumbled a snap inside MSU’s redzone. The MSU defense stood strong and forced a field goal, cutting MSU’s lead to 14-13. 

But Nailor and Thorne proved to be too much for Rutgers to handle. Thorne connected with Nailor for another 60+ yard touchdown, this time on a flea flicker, to put MSU up 21-13. In the first half, Thorne was 11-15 for 295 yards and three touchdowns, all to Nailor. Nailor had four catches for 208 yards and three touchdowns. 

Thorne finished 16-27 for 339 yards and three touchdowns, all to Nailor. Nailor only added one catch in the second half to add to his blistering first half and finished with five catches for 221 yards and three touchdowns. 

The second half did not hold the same early fireworks as the first half. The teams traded three and outs for most of the third quarter, before junior running back Kenneth Walker III turned the game on its head, as he is one to do. With MSU backed up inside its 10 yard line, Walker broke free and made a few defenders miss for a dazzling 94-yard touchdown run, the longest run in MSU history, to open the second-half scoring.

Walker finished with 29 carries for 233 yards and a touchdown. Walker continued his astonishing season and is up to 913 yards and nine touchdowns on the season. 

After allowing Rutgers to score 13 points in the first half, Michigan State’s defense did not allow the Scarlet Knights to score again. The defense was led by redshirt freshman linebacker Cal Haladay, who returned in the second half after having to sit out the first half because of a targeting call in the second half of MSU’s win against Western Kentucky.

Haladay had five tackles and led the Spartan defense to one of its best performances in a half this season, holding the Scarlet Knights to 131 yards and zero points.

The win moves Michigan State to 6-0 on the year, making them bowl eligible for the first time under Mel Tucker. The Spartans will look to continue its perfect season against Indiana next Saturday.

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