It started ugly and ended ugly for the Spartans on Saturday.
Junior running back Kenneth Walker III fumbled on the game’s opening possession, digging Michigan State into an early 7-0 hole. Then with the game still within grasp for the Spartans late in the fourth quarter, the defense again could not get off the field and Purdue iced the game with a field goal.
Now with its first loss in the books, MSU heads into the weekend with a different mentality. The 24-hour rule by Head Coach Mel Tucker still applied, but it was no celebration like the previous eight weeks. Instead, it was anger, frustration and confusion for a team that had such a thrilling start to the season before hitting its first bump in the road. For the first time all year, the leadership of the Spartans will be tested as they look to turn the ship in the right direction.
As for the younger guys, like freshman cornerback Charles Brantley, the immediate aftermath of the loss was upsetting. For the veterans though, it was a mature, business-like approach after the game. Accepting the loss, applauding the other team and quickly moving on.
Experienced players, such as senior safety Xavier Henderson, have been through plenty of losses over the last few years at Michigan State. One loss at Purdue hurts, but they know what needs to be done the following week.
“I’ve been here for so long,” Henderson said after the game. “I’ve lost a decent amount of times here. I’m trying to tell these guys, shoot, I wouldn’t trade it for anything. It made me a stronger person, it made me a better football player.”
Henderson has been one of the more vocal leaders on the team all year long. He’s the face of the defense, which is why he has been a team captain all nine weeks of the season.
In addition to Henderson, Tucker on Monday listed off seven other players as especially vocal throughout the week: graduate defensive end Drew Beesley, sophomore defensive end Jeff Pietrowski, graduate offensive lineman Luke Campbell, graduate offensive lineman Matt Allen, Walker, redshirt sophomore quarterback Payton Thorne and redshirt senior tight end Connor Heyward.
“I feel like some of the things we need to do is just everybody be on the same page, over communicating,” Beesley said. “Even if you think the guy next to you knows it, just keep talking and keep communicating.”
Tight ends coach Ted Gilmore said that Heyward particularly stood out as part of this week’s ‘Coach me, coach’ day, where every Tuesday players accept and embrace coaching from staff and other players.
“He’s trying to lead by example as far as the way you play and trying to be a vocal guy and he’s been a welcome addition to the room,” Gilmore said. “We are trying to get more of that as far as players, and he’s doing that.”
In addition to the need to bounce back after the first loss, the injury bug has bitten MSU badly for the first time in 2021. Three usual starters, graduate student kicker Matt Coghlin, redshirt junior wide receiver Jalen Nailor and senior offensive tackle Jarrett Horst, all missed last week’s game. It also appears that the cornerback position is banged up too with redshirt freshman Marqui Lowery sitting out last week and senior Ronald Williams and Brantley battling injuries too.
The Spartans likely will have to tap into their depth on Saturday, giving snaps to players who have not seen as much of the playing field. It is the leaders of this team who are tasked to hold everyone accountable and make sure everyone is on the same page.
If they are able to do so, it should lead to a promising performance for MSU. If not, they could be in trouble against a sneaky Maryland team.
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