Michigan State football: 10 takeaways from the 2022 regular season
Mel Tucker said following a 35-16 loss to No. 11 Penn State that he and the players would love 1 more chance to play this season. Honestly, 1 more game that could lead to disappointment is something no one else is likely looking for.
One year after hoisting the Peach Bowl Trophy with an 11-2 record, Michigan State’s season is over. A 5-7 finish will cease all conversations of December football, at least for the time being as a myriad of other things would have to occur. All that’s left is to decide where the program goes from here.
Where to go as a program? As an offense? As a coaching staff?
Let’s look back at the biggest takeaways from the lost 2022 season.
1. Offensive regression was bound to happen
Backs like Kenneth Walker III don’t grow on trees. Wake Forest found that out the hard way after watching its run game deplete in 2021 after Walker elected to transfer. A year later, Michigan State had the same revelation.
Walker, who rushed for 1,636 yards and 18 touchdowns last season, continues to make a name for himself with the Seattle Seahawks. In East Lansing, neither Jalen Berger (Wisconsin) nor Jarek Broussard (Colorado) was able to duplicate his success despite following a similar path to town via the transfer portal.
Berger averaged 4.7 yards per run and totaled 669 yards. Broussard averaged 4.8 and netted just 292 yards. Without an efficient run game, the offense became 1-dimensional most games, hanging Payton Thorne out to dry.
Walker, who totaled 263 of the Spartans’ 479 carries, wasn’t the only major name to leave. Tight end Conner Hayward and receiver Jalen Nailor also departed for the pros. While not x-factors or secret weapons, those two added value and consistency in the passing game for Thorne. Nailor caught 37 passes and scored 6 touchdowns. Heyward caught 35 balls and averaged 9.3 yards per play.
A limited run game? A less-than-stellar tight end room? Mixed play from receivers not named Keon Coleman and Reed? That’ll lead to the results MSU got offensively.
2. Jay Johnson should be on the hot seat … if not unemployed
One can’t blame everything on Tucker this season. While he might have a say in the personnel, offensive coordinator Jay Johnson has been by his side since their time at Georgia.
Should that change following a 2nd sub-.500 season in 3 years? Well, let’s look at the Spartans’ numbers from 2021:
- 39th scoring offense (31.8 points per game)
- 43rd total offense (428.7 yards per game)
- 49th passing offense (253.1 yards per game)
- 53rd rushing offense (175.6 yards per game)
- 62nd 3rd down conversion rate (40.5%)
Now let’s look at the numbers a year later:
- 86th scoring offense (25.2 points per game)
- 91st total offense (362 yards per game)
- 56th passing offense (241 yards per game)
- 104th rushing offense (121 yards per game)
- 60th 3rd down conversion rate (39.9%)
Everything has regressed. Since being hired by Tucker at Colorado, Johnson’s offense has finished in the bottom half of conference play in 3 of his 4 seasons.
Change is coming to East Lansing. While loyalty matters, it could end up costing multiple people a job. Tucker isn’t going anywhere this offseason, but athletic director Alan Haller could be demanding staff changes in the coming hours.
3. At least there’s Keon Coleman
Few players impressed on the regular this season. Coleman was one of the bright spots. Best of all, barring a trip to the transfer portal, he’ll remain one of the x-factors for next season as well.
Coleman finished with 50 catches for 707 yards and scored 7 touchdowns while averaging 14.1 yards per reception. He recorded 3 outings of 100+ yards and came up clutch with a pair of scores in the Spartans’ 34-28 double overtime win against Wisconsin.
A native of Louisiana, Coleman is a silky runner who cuts through defensive backfields like hot iron fresh off the coals. Add in his 6-4, 240-pound frame, and there’s no telling what he could be in the future for the offense. Of course, other programs might be interested in adding a big-bodied receiver with red-zone upside.
His home state LSU program is losing a pair of big receivers. Could Brian Kelly bring him back to the bayou?
4. Payton Thorne is no longer clear-cut QB1
After helping the Spartans finish with a New Years’ 6 bid in 2021, it came as little surprise that Thorne was named the Week 1 starter. Entering this offseason, Thorne will have a shot to remain the leading man.
A shot. Not the job.
Far too often, Thorne struggled with consistency. One game, he’s completing over 60% of his passes and connecting with Coleman and Reed like clockwork. The next: overthrows, underwhelming drives and interceptions galore.
Last season, Thorne tossed 9 interceptions. This season, he threw 10. The difference? Consistency. Last season, he only threw a pick in 7 games. This year, he threw one in 9.
Maybe Noah Kim isn’t the answer. Perhaps Tucker hits the transfer portal for a proven name. But Thorne can’t be the clear-cut No. 1 option entering spring practice. If so, similar results are bound to happen.
5. The secondary got better, but not by much
How bad was Michigan State’s secondary? It allowed 21 touchdowns in coverage. It caused 2 turnovers.
And while the production decreased in terms of “explosive plays” allowed downfield, the lack of ability to create takeaways hampered all positivity. The worst part wasn’t even the coverage. It was the open-field tackling.
How many times could you count multiple missed tackles per drive? How many moments did it look like a collision course was headed in the direction of the ball carrier, only to watch the play extend? How many weeks did poor tackling cost the Spartans a touchdown? A quarter? A win?
Priority No. 1 for the Spartans this offseason: add defensive back depth.
6. Offensive line might be on the rise
Credit to the 5 men up front. Thorne might not have always had his best games, but he did have time on the regular.
The Spartans’ offensive line allowed 18 sacks on the season, tied for 4th in the B1G. Four came against Ohio State, which currently ranks 26th nationally with 32. Three more came in the season finale against Penn State, which closed out the year ranked 12th nationally with 36.
Outside of those 2 games, Thorne only suffered 2 more multi-sack games. He was untouched in back-to-back games against Rutgers and Indiana.
Is that something to write home about when the same unit allowed the Spartans to average just 4 yards per run? Maybe not, but it’s little wins, right?
7. Another year, another ranked win
Tucker somehow manages to get the best out of his players following an embarrassing loss. In 2021, the Spartans rebounded following a scare against Indiana on the road to beat No. 6 Michigan 37-33. In 2020, Michigan State rallied after losing to Rutgers in the season opener to ruin the then-No. 13 Wolverines’ season in Week 2.
Illinois won’t be headed to the B1G title game next weekend, but it was at one point perhaps the most balanced program outside the league’s big 2 entering November. Its offense catered to the ground-and-pound production of Chase Brown while its defense ranked No. 1 in scoring and top 10 in total defense and pass coverage.
Thorne didn’t care, throwing for 182 yards and 2 scores. The defense didn’t care as it contained Tommy DeVito’s arm and Brown’s legs for most of the afternoon. And the result? A third year with a win over a ranked opponent.
Since being hired, Tucker is 5-6 against ranked foes. It’s nothing to entice the fan base in terms of believing he’s the long-term guy, but ranked wins will catch the national pundits’ attention. How many other 3rd-year coaches can say they have more than 5 ranks victories? Very few.
8. Cal Haladay is a tackling machine
A new week, a new record in tackles. That’s how it felt watching Haladay this season in his first full year as a starter.
One week, Haladay was making 10 tackles. The next, 11. Then came 12. The weeks went by and the sophomore’s numbers went up.
This season, Haladay finished with 7 double-digit tackle games. He posted a career-high 19 stops against Rutgers on the road, and he doubled his tackle for loss total from 5 to 10.5.
Expected to be back next year, Haladay should serve as the field general of the defense. He’s earned the right to call the shots and be the thumper who moves sideline to sideline ready to pounce.
9. Close but no cigar to bowl bid
The Spartans could have punched their ticket to bowl season against Indiana 2 weeks ago. Up by 17 at halftime, they let the Hoosiers outscore them 24-7 in the final 30 minutes, then lost in overtime.
They could have done it earlier in the year against Maryland, but were outscored 13-0 following a 2nd-quarter Reed touchdown to fall to 2-3 on the year. Two weeks prior, Michigan State could have won against a rebuilding Washington team, but a 16-0 deficit in the 1st half was too much to overcome in a 39-28 loss to the Huskies.
Washington finished with 10 wins in Year 1 under Kalen DeBoer and Maryland had one of college football’s most underappreciated offenses, but the message is clear. Even in games against Rutgers, Wisconsin and Western Michigan, the point differential was far too close. In each of those 3 wins, the margin of victory was less than 2 touchdowns.
Two games went to double overtime this year while a 3rd very well could have if Illinois found its spark earlier in the night. That’s far too close for comfort. That can’t happen come fall of 2023.
10. Mel Tucker, you’re on thin ice
Complain all you want, Spartan Nation. Tucker will be back in 2023.
Will he be past it? Good question.
After going 2-5 in Year 1 and 11-2 in Year 2, Tucker split the difference and went a middling 5-7 in Year 3. So what is Tucker? Is he a coach who can get 8-10 wins a season? Is he one that’ll have a good year and then fall back down the big board of coaches rankings with 6 wins or fewer for the next decade?
Michigan State is 1 of 3 B1G programs that has made the College Football Playoff since 2014. While it shouldn’t be considered top-tier of the conference, it’s at the cusp of Tier 1. Or at least has been. The school should demand more from its players and coaches.
Tucker, now 18-14 with the program, needs another revival year. Work the transfer portal, win big in recruiting, beg for more sponsors with NIL money, sell a soul or 2? Anything at this point.
There’s no going back on Tucker’s lucrative 10-year, $95 million deal. However, sometimes it’s best to cut your losses.
For Tucker, who did little to boost his approval rating following the brawl that occurred in the Michigan Stadium tunnel resulting in the suspensions of 7 players, can’t have another year like 2022. No amount of buyout money should rationalize the headache and nightmarish outcomes that unfolded throughout the course of this season.