As the time expired, Michigan State players and coaches shuffled onto the frigid, snow-blanketed field. It was a celebration not just of a 30-27 win over Penn State, but a celebration of a 10-win season in MSU Head Coach Mel Tucker’s second season with the team, just days after signing a record-breaking contract extension.
All sorts of players, such as junior running back Kenneth Walker III, redshirt junior wide receiver Jayden Reed, and redshirt junior running back Harold Joiner, turned what had just been a challenge into a party, sliding onto the frozen ground and performing snow angels in front of the MSU student section.
It was a storybook ending to the regular season for a team not just navigating through the challenges that COVID-19 presented in 2021, but with its own unique ones too.
For some, like Walker, it was their first game in the snow, meaning the first chance to do snow angels after beating a stingy Penn State team and bringing the Land Grant Trophy back to East Lansing.
“It was fun,” Walker said. “It was exciting. We won the game. It was really exciting to get our last home game win.”
The Spartans probably wish the snow was the most challenging aspect of Saturday’s game. On Friday evening before the game, a report came out from The Action Network that Michigan State was dealing with the flu in the locker room.
Penn State dealt with it last week, forcing multiple starters to sit out and senior quarterback Sean Clifford to leave the game early. There was no telling how badly Michigan State would be affected come gametime. Would MSU have its starting quarterback available? How about its star running back or any other starters or seniors that could be playing for the final time at Spartan Stadium?
“We shuffled some lineups during the week,” Tucker said after the game. “Contingency plans, and we were not exactly sure who was going to be able to answer the bell. We knew that the guys who could play, we knew that they would play if they could and we knew that they would give everything that they had.”
But as it played out Saturday, MSU for the most part was able to dodge a huge bullet with most starters able to play. After the game, redshirt sophomore quarterback Payton Thorne particularly shouted out Walker and two graduate students playing in their last games at Spartan Stadium: offensive lineman Kevin Jarvis and defensive end Jacub Panasiuk.
“We had IVs in here a couple days ago and all types of stuff,” Thorne said. “It was really a group effort on getting guys ready to go, but guys doing their part taking all the medicine they needed to and just battling through the adversity of this week through it. It was a great job.”
Walker said he never had a doubt he would play on Saturday, but he was also dealing with an injury that limited him last week at Ohio State. Reed, who also got dinged-up with a boot on his foot last week, did not even practice until Friday.
“Sometimes you got to be uncomfortable to receive what you want,” Reed said. “That’s what I had to do and I had to make a sacrifice for my team and I am satisfied with that decision I made.”
So when it came game time and snow was falling on the brisk, late November evening, a little bit of snow was no problem for the Spartans, even with Penn State wearing an all-white uniform that camouflaged with the environment.
Walker, who was slipping and sliding a few times throughout the game, still was tremendous rushing for 138 yards and one touchdown. He carried the ball 30 times, but perhaps his most important one came in the first quarter. MSU held an early 7-0 lead, but was pinned all the way back on its own one-yard line. The give was to Walker who bursted through the line of scrimmage for a 35-yard run to give Michigan State some breathing room to start its 99-yard, six-minute touchdown drive. Had he been at 100%, Walker may have made that last defender miss for a goal-line-to-goal-line touchdown.
Reed, who if not for Walker is probably the team’s second-biggest play-maker, also did not show any signs of being hampered by any of the adversity. The snowy conditions made kicking field goals extremely difficult, resulting in both teams’ offenses having to play with four downs, especially as the game progressed.
Late in the fourth quarter on 4th and 15, Thorne lofted a 50-50 ball to Reed in the endzone—a gutsy throw to say the least. Reed climbed the ladder, made the grab, and held onto the rock for the touchdown, one that gave MSU a two-possession cushion with five minutes to play.
Michigan State’s kicker position was funky too. Graduate kicker Matt Coghlin handled the usual kicking duties in the first half connecting on an extra point and a field goal, but never returned in the second half. Freshman kicker Stephen Rusnak handled the kick-off job, but he too did not return in the second half.
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That led Tucker to dig deep within the depth chart to handle an important aspect of the game. Walk-on redshirt junior kicker Evan Johnson, who last kicked in 2018 at Hope College, took over as the place kicker, missing his first extra point and making his second. However another Evan, redshirt sophomore Evan Morris who transitioned from kicker to tight end in 2020, took over as the kick-off specialist and fared pretty well.
“It basically shows how tough we are and how resilient we are as a collective group,” graduate defensive end Drew Beesley said. “You got to be prepared and I feel like everybody, offense, defense and special teams, everybody in this group prepared harder than ever. I can’t be any more proud of them.”
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