Michigan State football: My 10 favorite moments from the 2020 season
Now that the dreaded 2-4 season is finally over, Michigan State and Mel Tucker can turn ahead to better days. 2020 wasn’t short on negatives out of East Lansing, but there was actually a sprinkling of positivity throughout. Any year that includes a win over Michigan is a good one, but before we get to that, these were my 10 favorite moments from Michigan State’s 2020 season.
10. It happened
Just two wins and a pair of cancellations are never the plan, but considering the Spartans weren’t the worst Big Ten team in the state of Michigan, the 2020 season wasn’t quite a catastrophe. The worst should be behind Michigan State as Mel Tucker and Co. should have a more normal offseason to continue the rebuild. After the threat of the Big Ten completely canceling the season in August, let’s just be happy the Spartans were able to play 6 games, no matter how ugly some of them may have been.
9. The Mel Tucker hire
It’s been almost exactly 11 months since Michigan State brass hastily replaced Mark Dantonio. Tucker wasn’t the No. 1 choice — Cincinnati’s Luke Fickell and others turned down the job, and Tucker had just tweeted days earlier his commitment to staying at Colorado — but he proved to be a competent hire.
Any time a program replaces a head coach after 13 seasons, especially one as successful as Dantonio, it’s a landmark day. Tucker certainly had growing pains in Year 1 that were outside of his control, but he has established a familiar blue-collar culture in East Lansing and should have the Spartans vying for at least a .500 record in 2021.
8. Jayden Reed 50-yard touchdown vs. Rutgers
It was the first touchdown of the year, and it was a good one. Following 2 turnovers and digging a 14-0 hole in the 1st quarter to Rutgers, Rocky Lombardi finally connected with the new Western Michigan transfer whom Spartans fans had heard so much about for more than a year.
Michigan State would go on to lose 38-27 to a Rutgers team that outperformed preseason expectations, but Reed had quite the debut. He caught 11 passes for 128 yards and 2 touchdowns, although he was also responsible for 2 of Michigan State’s 8 turnovers in the game.
7. Signing Ma’a Gaoteote
There may not be too many on-field highlights for Michigan State, but flipping the 4-star linebacker from his longtime commitment is huge for a linebacker group looking to replace Antjuan Simmons. Gaoteote is the only 4-star recruit in Tucker’s first recruiting class and is the No. 11 outside linebacker in the nation.
His older brother Palaie still hasn’t announced where he intends to transfer, but the former 5-star prospect coming to East Lansing would be an immediate candidate for the top moments of 2021.
6. Shakur Brown’s 4 interceptions in 2 games
For a defense with only a few bright spots, Brown garnered some national headlines for his ball-hawking abilities for 2 weeks.
Brown intercepted Indiana’s Michael Penix twice in the Hoosiers’ 24-0 win and then intercepted Northwestern’s Payton Ramsey 2 more times in the very next game. Heading into December, Brown was tied for the national lead with 5 interceptions.
Two-pick Shakur. 😉
— Big Ten Network (@BigTenNetwork) November 14, 2020
The All-Big Ten corner wouldn’t intercept another pass, but he did declare for the 2021 NFL Draft, where he’ll be taken to continue Michigan State’s remarkable stretch of having at least one player drafted in every draft dating to 1941.
5. Antjuan Simmons’ career day
Speaking of defensive bright spots, Simmons was the uncontested leader of the Spartans’ defense and will be a gaping hole to fill for Michigan State moving forward. The senior LB finished with double-digit tackles in all but one game this season — he was injured in the Iowa game in which he finished with 4 tackles.
Simmons finished the year with a team-high 9 tackles for loss, and his 75 total tackles were 21 better than the next closest teammate. His best performance, however, came in the shutout loss to Indiana in which he was all over the field, finishing with a career-high 14 tackles. Simmons will join Brown in entering the NFL Draft.
4. Payton Thorne’s game against Penn State
Michigan State may have not won back the Land Grant Trophy, but Thorne did have the best game of any Michigan State QB this season. Thorne started the game 11-of-13 for 202 yards and 3 touchdowns as the Spartans ran out to a 21-10 lead at the half.
— The Sports Throne (@SportsThroneHub) December 12, 2020
Michigan State would only score 3 more points the rest of the game as Thorne finished with 325 yards, but he finished the season on a high note from the QB position. Couple that with the addition of Anthony Russo from Temple, and the Spartans should have a much better season in 2021 from their quarterback position.
3. Ricky White goes off in Ann Arbor
Michigan’s secondary was abused all game, and Ricky White was the biggest culprit.
The freshman wideout caught 8 passes for 196 yards, including a few remarkable bobbles and a 30-yard score to put the Spartans ahead 7-0. White made catches of 30, 31, 40 and 50 yards. His 196 yards tied for 7th-most in a game in Spartans history — and best ever by a freshman.
His best catch of the day came on a 12-play drive in the 3rd quarter that started on Michigan State’s 8-yard line and ended with the Spartans’ final touchdown of the day.
— FOX College Football (@CFBONFOX) October 31, 2020
White would only catch 1 more pass all season.
2. Jalen Nailor’s 75-yard score to jumpstart upset
If you can’t win a title, you might as well play spoiler.
Michigan State effectively ended No. 8 Northwestern’s season by springing a 29-20 upset of the previously undefeated Wildcats. Jalen Nailor hauled in a 75-yard touchdown from Rocky Lombardi to put the Spartans ahead 10-0, a lead they would never relinquish.
— Big Ten Network (@BigTenNetwork) November 28, 2020
Nailor finished the game with 3 receptions for 99 yards and would finish the season as Michigan State’s leader in receiving yards with 515.
1. Down goes Michigan
There’s really not a better way to record your first career win as a coach for the Spartans. And Michigan State’s social media department did a pretty good troll job relishing the moment.
LADIES AND GENTLEMEN… pic.twitter.com/2rVrkrjytD
— Michigan State Football (@MSU_Football) October 31, 2020