Michigan State's resurgent run game rumbles over another opponent

Matt Charboneau
The Detroit News

East Lansing — The numbers have been so impressive, it’s forced most folks to do a double-take.

In the opener last week at Northwestern, Michigan State ran for 326 yards. On Saturday in the home opener against Youngstown State, the Spartans rolled up 272 yards on their way to a dominating 42-14 victory at Spartan Stadium.

Michigan State running back Jordon Simmons (22) runs the ball between Youngstown State's Jordan White (26) and Jake Powell (48) in the first half.

Why are the numbers worth taking a second look? Because Michigan State hasn’t run the ball like this in a long time. A year ago, the Spartans managed to gain just 91.4 yards per game on the ground, the worst in the Big Ten.

So, as Michigan State is busy getting off to a fast start, the fact much of the work is coming on the ground makes it all the more impressive.

“I feel like overall as a team, we came out ready to play last week, did a great job blocking on Friday,” sophomore running back Jordon Simmons said. “So, I think they also came out ready to play today and we did the same thing. Personally, I think I came out, got the momentum going to really win the game, and just kept going throughout.”

That it was Simmons this week was an eye-opener, as well.

In the win over Northwestern, it was Kenneth Walker III who ran for 264 yards and four touchdowns, pulling in Big Ten and national awards.

On Saturday, it was Simmons who had the hot hand.

“We split carries in practice, so it wasn't where I thought I was going to be the work horse throughout the week,” Simmons said. “We just practice hard and we came out here, (coach Mel Tucker) trusted me out there and I went out there and did a great job. The O-line also did great job blocking up front.”

It’s not like Walker wasn’t a factor in the running attack. He started for the second straight game and gained 57 yards on seven carries for an average of 8.1 yards per attempt. He also scored his fifth touchdown of the season on a 6-yard run in the second quarter.

“We need to have multiple backs to be able to go in and be productive for us,” Tucker said. “We need to keep our guys fresh and we need guys to go in there and be able to run the ball, hit the hole, understand the power of the play. We also need guys in pass (protection) to step up and help protect the quarterback and guy's that are going to get out in the routes and catch the ball. … How do you get multiple guys ready during the week? That is important to be able to do.

“We showed that we have we have some balance, we have some depth at positions, and we have guys that can make plays and execute the offense, but we haven't reached our potential yet.”

More: Henning: Tucker stoking the embers of Michigan State's greatness

On one hand ...

The play of the game would probably have to go to the first, a 75-yard touchdown pass from Payton Thorne to Jayden Reed. But a close second would be one on defense.

Early in the second quarter with Youngstown State in Michigan State territory, Penguins quarterback Demeatric Crenshaw floated a pass down the middle of the field toward the end zone. That’s when safety Xavier Henderson, a high school teammate of Crenshaw’s, soared through the air and pulled down a one-handed interception that stole any momentum Youngstown State might have built.

“I was playing the deep middle and kind of just put my hand up there,” said Henderson, who had eight tackles and a sack. “New gloves were kind of sticky, but I ended up coming down with it. Unfortunately, I hate to do my boy Meech like that. Demeatric was my starting quarterback in high school, but he played really well and I was really happy for him.”

Fans bring energy

For the first time since late in the 2019 season, fans were back in Spartan Stadium.

The announced attendance was 70,103, and it came close to that with only some empty spots in the corner of the upper deck. Add in tributes to first responders on the 20th anniversary of the terrorists attacks on the country and the energy didn’t go unnoticed from the players and coaches.

“I mean seeing that, the crowd, the people from 9/11 and everything, that just gives me butterflies and it added a little bit more energy to my soul really,” Reed said. “I mean just hearing them and stuff like that gives me chills and everything.”

Added Thorne, “It was outstanding. It’s great to see our fans back. I thought they showed up in great numbers today. … With 9/11 today it's a great way to keep things in perspective, the 20th anniversary today. We can't be more thankful to live in this country that we live in. The sacrifices that those people made on this day 20 years ago it keeps things in perspective.

“We are lucky to play this game and live in a country where playing this game is something that's normal, it's not a gift anywhere else in the world so we are very thankful to play on this day and to honor those who sacrificed it all for our country.”

Extra points

Michigan State was without a trio of defensive ends, all for what the program called “medical reasons.”

Seniors Drew Beesley and Drew Jordan were out, along with redshirt freshman Itayvion Brown. Sophomore Jeff Pietrowski got his first start and recorded his first career sack along with four tackles.

… Junior running back Elijah Collins injured his left leg on a 20-yard touchdown pass in the second quarter. He had his foot in a walking boot as he stood on the sidelines in the second half. Tucker had no update on Collins’ status after the game.

… Freshman WR Keon Coleman had his first career catch, and redshirt freshman and Purdue transfer TE Maliq Carr had his first grab as a Spartan, as well. Redshirt freshman RB Donovan Eaglin had six carries for 33 yards in his first career action while freshman LB Ma’a Gaoteote played for the first time.

mcharboneau@detroitnews.com

Twitter: @mattcharboneau