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Heyward assumes unlikely starring role in Spartans victory

Matt Charboneau
The Detroit News

Ann Arbor — A year ago at this time, Connor Heyward was sitting on his couch, just watching football like any other college student.

It had been roughly a month since the Michigan State running back had decided his days with the Spartans were over and announced he was entering the transfer portal.

Michigan State running back Connor Heyward leaps across the goal line for a touchdown in the fourth quarter.

So, imagine if someone said at that point that Heyward would make his way back to Michigan State and one year later come up with two huge plays in the Spartans’ 27-24 victory over Michigan?

Hard to imagine, but that’s exactly what Heyward did.

His 2-yard touchdown catch in the first half gave Michigan State a 14-7 lead, but it was what he did late in the fourth quarter that truly proved to be the difference. With 5:11 left in the game and Michigan State holding a three-point lead, Heyward caught a screen pass from Rocky Lombardi, picked up a block from center Nick Samac, darted down the sideline then spun into the end zone.

The play gave the Spartans a 10-point lead, and after Michigan scored a touchdown with 37 seconds left, Heyward covered up the Wolverines’ attempt at an onside kick.

“He’s about the team,” Michigan State coach Mel Tucker said. “That’s why he's out there and that's why he has a role. He embraces his role and he does it to the best of his ability. That’s what he's shown in practice and that's why he's able to carry it over to the game. 

“I'm proud of him, along with all the rest of his teammates.”

Heyward lost his starting job after one game last season, giving way to Elijah Collins. After four games, Heyward decided to enter the transfer portal, but after Tucker was hired on Feb. 12, Heyward chose to return to Michigan State.

And while Collins’ role has been limited, Heyward has returned as the starter. He carried 13 times for 28 yards Saturday and caught two passes for 15 yards, both going for touchdowns.

“He’s worked really hard in the weight room, off the field, on the field,” Tucker said. “He’s assignment-sound, he’s been a good teammate and he’s worked on all the technique and fundamentals that he's been taught. He works hard every day.”

No worries

There always seems to be some sort of war of words in this rivalry, but often times it comes before the game.

After Saturday's game, Michigan quarterback Joe Milton was asked about Ann Arbor native and MSU linebacker Antjuan Simmons.

“I wasn’t really worried about him,” Milton said. “He’s a heck of a player, but he wasn’t really on my radar.”

Perhaps he should have been considering Simmons had a team-high 11 tackles and broke up two passes, one coming in the end zone that forced Michigan to settle for a field goal.

When it was relayed to Simmons, he had a laugh.

“It doesn’t matter, Paulie B's back with us,” Simmons said, referencing the Paul Bunyan Trophy. “I don’t know what those guys do over there. But we study our opponent. We know who we're playing against. So I don't care if I'm on Joe Milton's radar or not. I mean, he's just a quarterback who plays here at Michigan. I'm saying I'm not worried about what he's thinking or whatever. I watched the tape on him, so I don't know what to say about it.”

Hanging on to the ball

Michigan State didn’t turn the ball over after giving it away seven times in the season-opening loss to Rutgers while failing to convert on fourth down twice.

“A lot better than nine, I would say,” Michigan State quarterback Rocky Lombardi said. “That's the reason why we won the game. The pride of the organization is the ball. … You don't turn the ball over, you win games.”

Extra points

Michigan State’s victory was its ninth in the last 13 meetings against Michigan, while Mel Tucker became the first head coach in school history to defeat Michigan for his first win.

Tucker also joins Nick Saban as the only Spartans head coaches to defeat Michigan in their first meeting.

… Wide receiver Ricky White’s 196 receiving yards were the most-ever by a Spartan freshman receiver, bettering the previous mark, Cody White's 165 receiving yards in 2017 at Northwestern. They were the seventh-most in program history.

… Quarterback Rocky Lombardi threw for a career-high 323 yards, the third-most by a Spartans quarterback against Michigan (Bill Burke with 400 in 1999; Connor Cook with 325 in 2015).

 … Michigan State suffered a handful of injuries. Defensive tackle Naquan Jones injured his arm in the second quarter but returned while offensive lineman Blake Bueter hurt his leg in the fourth but came back. Guard Matt Carrick was hurt in the third quarter and did not return while safety Tre Person was hurt in the fourth quarter.

Sophomore receiver Tre Mosley dressed but did not play after getting hurt last week.

mcharboneau@detroitnews.com

Twitter: @mattcharboneau