All season long, Michigan State’s offense has been credited for making all of the big plays, and rightfully so.
Whether it was junior running back Kenneth Walker III breaking loose for a big run, redshirt sophomore quarterback Payton Thorne connecting deep with a receiver, or a flea-flicker for Pete’s sake, the Spartans have been good for at least one big play every game. It was only a matter of time.
But for the first time all season in Saturday’s 20-15 win over Indiana, that did not happen. 60 minutes went by and the game ended with MSU’s longest play a 28-yard over-the-shoulder catch by redshirt junior wide receiver Jayden Reed. It still felt like only a matter of time, but that big, explosive play that the Spartans have relied on all year never came.
So, Michigan State had to turn to the other side of the football for an explosion and found results.
The Spartans’ offense was stuck in a deep first half cement that held them to just 57 yards and two first downs. However, there was a seven on the halftime scoreboard next to Michigan State’s name and it was because of the defense.
After redshirt senior Bryce Baringer’s second punt of the opening quarter, the Michigan State defense made two straight run stops to set up a 3rd and 8. MSU showed blitz with linebackers Cal Haladay and Quavaris Crouch lined up in the A gap, but backed off upon the snap of the ball.
Haladay kept his eyes on Indiana quarterback Jack Tuttle and read the play perfectly with the ball being thrown right to him, almost like Haladay was running the route instead of the intended target of redshirt senior tight end Peyton Hendershot. The gloveless Haladay picked off the pass, scampered down the left sideline and scored Michigan State’s only points of the half.
It was 9-7 at halftime in favor of Indiana, but inside Memorial Stadium, it felt like a much larger lead than that. Haladay’s big play along with the entire defensive effort of holding the Hoosiers to three field goals instead of touchdowns kept Michigan State in striking distance.
“I told the offense at halftime, look, we are not going to wait on one play,” Michigan State Head Coach Mel Tucker said. “We are not going to wait on an 80-yard pass or 90-yard run. That’s not what this is going. That’s not what this is gonna be about. If it happens, it happens, but that’s not what this game is all about.”
The Spartans’ offense was better in the second half but never truly broke out of its rut. The constant defense of making big plays and bending but not breaking gave the rest of the team a path to victory.
In the third quarter, Thorne got picked off in Indiana territory as MSU looked to extend its 10-9 lead. It felt like a big momentum swing for the Spartans when the offense looked like it was just starting to figure things out.
Five plays later, Tuttle was hit by redshirt senior defensive end Jacub Panasiuk as he released the ball and the pass was well short of the target. Sophomore safety Darius Snow was in the right place at the right time and intercepted Tuttle to give MSU the football right back in IU territory.
That, along with some trickery from redshirt senior tight end Tyler Hunt, helped set up a Michigan State touchdown to extend the lead to 17-9. Snow said after the game that it was a demonstration of the team’s cohesion.
“It's a team sport,” Snow said. “When we're not doing well, they're the same way. Keep your head up, Let’s go. We'll put points on the board and then when they when they come off, we'll keep them off the board.”
On the ensuing drive, however, Indiana rode down the field and scored a one-yard touchdown. The Hoosiers went for two with the opportunity to tie the game early in the fourth quarter, but senior safety Xavier Henderson was prepared. During the game a shovel pass went to Hendershot, but Henderson recognized the play right way and met at the line of scrimmage short of the goal-line.
“They run it a decent amount,” Henderson said. “I didn’t know it was coming but I keyed the tight end the whole way and I was right there for it.”
Leading by five late in the game, Michigan State forced its third turnover of the game on a strip-sack from junior cornerback Chester Kimbrough who came off the edge on a cornerback blitz. MSU would give the ball back two players later on a Thorne interception, but the Spartan defense came right back on the field and got the stop it needed for Michigan State to secure the victory.
“I think our defense comes out and knows we got to play every single play every game, no matter how the offense does,” Haladay said. “The offense could score 100 points, or whatever it is, we just know we got to come out and play and do our best to shut the other opponent out or not let up any points.”
Games like this may happen again where the defense will have to step up due to a lack of offensive production or vice versa, especially with a Big Ten East gauntlet starting in two weeks after the bye. The Spartans' defense proved Saturday that it is more than capable of making some highlight plays of its own, some of which can be good enough to carry MSU to victory.
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