Junior wide receiver Jalen Nailor has bided his time in the Michigan State offense. With the emergence of players like juniors Kenneth Walker III and Jayden Reed as the go-to guys, Nailor fell down the pecking order through the early weeks of the 2021 season.
Through the first five games of the season, Nailor had 18 catches for 269 yards and three touchdowns and mainly served as a safety valve for sophomore quarterback Payton Thorne as he relied on Reed for stretching the field.
But today was about Nailor, who reminded everyone why his nickname is “Speedy.”
Nailor became the main option down the field for Thorne in the first half of MSU’s 31-13 victory against Rutgers on his way to a career-high 221 yards and three touchdowns on five catches. After MSU had success moving the ball but couldn’t score, MSU turned to attacking Rutgers downfield via Nailor.
“We just grind and grind every day just trying to try to make explosive plays whenever we can and that was the result today," Nailor said. "Payton found me on the field and I made it easy on him and he told me that.”
The 221-yard performance is the fourth-most yards in a game by a Michigan State wide receiver in school history, behind only Andre Rison with 252 yards, Plaxico Burress, who had 255 yards 22 years ago today and Charles Rodgers with 270 yards. Nailor nearly doubled his season yardage in the first half and tied the school record for receiving touchdowns in a half with three.
The script for the first half for the Spartans was simple: make a boneheaded mistake, surrender a score, throw it up to Nailor to answer back emphatically. Mel Tucker said that the plays are there in the offense for someone to have a big week each week, and it was Nailor's turn this week.
“There are going to be opportunities for everyone out there and we have to execute,” Tucker said. “Obviously, they (Thorne and Nailor) have confidence in each other. The plays are out there. We just have to make them on a consistent basis.”
The first time Thorne found Nailor, MSU just surrendered a touchdown to Rutgers to fall down 7-0 early. On the second play of the drive, Nailor faked like he was running a curl route and cut upfield past Rutgers cornerback Tre Avery to run free. Thorne delivered a strike in a collapsing pocket to Nailor who was wide open for a 63-yard touchdown to put MSU on the board.
The aggression continued for the MSU’s offense throughout the first half to try and regain and build a lead. MSU continued to shoot themselves in the foot with clock mismanagement and penalties and had to rely on big plays to generate offense.
After Rutgers kicked a field goal to take a 10-7 lead early in the second quarter, MSU turned Nailor’s way again for an answer. Nailor’s second touchdown came on a 3rd down pass from Thorne. Thorne threw to Nailor, who was running a go route against Avery on the MSU sideline. Thorne dropped the ball between the corner and safety for Nailor to make an over-the-shoulder catch. Nailor then stopped on a dime, letting Avery run past him, then cut to the middle of the field to the endzone.
“I mean that was a beautiful ball from Payton, first off,” Nailor said. “I just tried to make sure I was still inbounds. I didn't know if I was in or out so I just made sure I was in, cut to the left and saw green grass.”
MSU’s next drive ended in a few plays again, but this time it was thanks to a fumble from Thorne inside the Spartans’ redzone. Rutgers scored a field goal to cut the lead to 14-13 and the pendulum of momentum swung towards the Scarlet Knights once again.
MSU did not falter, though after the mistake. Instead, the offense did what it knew best, attack downfield. On the first play of the drive, MSU went back to its bread-and-butter play, the flea-flicker. After Thorne got the ball pitched back from Walker, he heaved the ball down the field to Nailor, who was once again wide open after a double move on Avery for a 65-yard touchdown to extend the lead to 21-13, MSU.
Nailor only had one catch for 13 yards in the second half after having four for 208 yards and three touchdowns in the first half, but the damage was done at that point. Rutgers did not score another point, making the three touchdown-performance from Nailor enough for a Spartan victory.
Nailor was still involved in the explosive offensive circus in the second half despite garnering a lot of the defense’s attention. For the final touchdown of the game, MSU was backed up on their own six-yard line. After Kenneth Walker styled on the Rutgers defense and was running to the endzone for a 94-yard, Heisman-defining touchdown run, Nailor caught up with Walker and dapped him up for an impromptu celebration before he crossed the goal line.
“I remember it happening,” Nailor said. “It's not something we correlated or anything like that. It just happened, it was in the moment.”
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