Michigan State football: Midseason grades for the 6-0 Spartans
It took a little more effort via big play than anticipated, but Michigan State found a way this past Saturday to put away Rutgers, 31-13, at SHI Stadium in New Jersey.
For the first time since Week 4 of 2016, the Spartans are in the top 10 of the AP poll — they’re No. 10 due to their 6-0 start and highlight-reel worthy performances.
This weekend, the Spartans go on the road to face an underachieving Indiana team; it’s one that turned heads in 2020 but has fallen by the wayside this time around. Nonetheless, it’s a road test and promises to be a growing experience for MSU and second-year coach Mel Tucker, who has the Spartans in the top 10 quicker than any of his predecessors in the last 65 years. After 13 games at the helm, Tucker’s Spartans are No. 10.
Duffy Daugherty got the Spartans to No. 6 early in the 1955 season following his 13th game leading the program. (Technically, he led a top 10 team in his first game, because he inherited Biggie Munn’s team that finished 9-1 and No. 3 in 1953 and opened ’54 at No. 7. But the Spartans lost that opener and finished 3-6 in Daugherty’s first season.)
Offense: Solid, solid A
No offense is perfect, but the Spartans have 4 of the most exciting players in the Big Ten trotting out every Saturday. QB Payton Thorne, RB Kenneth Walker III, WR Jayden Reed and WR Jalen “Speedy” Nailor have been magnificent through 6 weeks.
Against Rutgers, Michigan State scored 4 TDs of 60-plus yards. Nailor had 3 of them. Walker had a 94-yard TD run that was the longest play from scrimmage in Spartans history.
Thorne is the No. 3-ranked overall QB in the Big Ten. He’s thrown 14 TDs and only 2 INTs this season. On top of that, he’s completing nearly 63 percent of his passes and has the league’s longest TD throw (85 yards).
Walker (6th) and Reed (9th) are in the top 10 in the country in terms of all-purpose yards per game. Reed, one of the best punt and kickoff return men in the country, ranked No. 1 prior to last weekend. He shares the national lead with 11 all-purpose plays of 30-plus yards.
Heisman talk surrounds the lead running back. Two receivers are among the most versatile and dangerous players in the country. The QB is 6-0 and the unquestioned leader of the offense — yeah, the Spartans, who also have a top-tier OL, are worthy of a complimentary grade for their offensive efforts.
MSU has the No. 16-ranked total offense in the FBS, averaging 485.7 yards per game.
Defense: Passing defense pulls down grade, so go with C-
Jacub Panasiuk has been one of the best DEs in the Big Ten for the past 2 seasons. This year, he’s emerged as the heart and soul of the Spartans. He has 4.5 sacks, good for a share of the No. 4 spot in the B1G, and is considered as one of the program’s most prominent figures.
Xavier Henderson, a S/LB, has 52 total tackles — No. 6 overall in the B1G — and averages 8.7 per game. Nearly 9 tackles per game — now that’s some serious production.
Despite some hiccups vs. Rutgers and WKU’s passing games, the Spartans still have a decent defense. They’ve allowed 19.9 points per game, so that’s not a cause to panic. Per the numbers, MSU has the worst passing defense in the conference, allowing a league-high 301.7 yards per game; it’s also given up 9 passing TDs, tied for fourth-most in the league.
The rushing defense is 5th in the B1G.
The overall numbers aren’t pretty. In terms of total defense, Michigan State has the No. 12-ranked ensemble in the Big Ten, giving up 418.5 yards per game.
Special Teams: Big returns help, but FG kicking needs help, so C+
Jayden Reed’s pair of punt return TDs vs. Nebraska said everything that needed to be said about Michigan State’s return game: Don’t test your luck, you might get burned.
The Spartans have the No. 1-ranked punt return team in the Big Ten, averaging 28.3 yards per return and highlighted by Reed’s touchdowns. Averaging 24.6 yards per touch, the kick return team hasn’t done too bad, either.
Though Matt Coghlin has made several big field goals during his career, just recently breaking Brett Swenson’s record of 71 makes with a 35-yarder vs. Rutgers to get to 72, he’s only converting 61.5 percent of his attempts. Going 8-for-13 to start the season has Coghlin at his worst success rate of his career; he’s never made fewer than 68 percent of his attempts. In 2017 and 2018, he was at roughly 80 percent. In 2020, he made 75 percent of FG attempts.
MSU can’t afford to miss 3-point opportunities.
Despite big numbers on returns, the Spartans still need some work on special teams. So an average grade is more than appropriate.