MSU notebook: Spartans force four turnovers, Kenneth Walker 'difference maker'
Miami Gardens, Fla. — It’s almost hard to remember how much turnovers killed Michigan State a year ago.
At least, it seemed difficult to conjure up memories of seven-turnover games on Saturday when Michigan State was in the midst of beating up on No. 24 Miami, pulling away late to earn a 38-17 victory and move to 3-0 for the first time since 2015.
It all was possible because, not only did Michigan State not give the ball up a single time, it created four turnovers — two interceptions and two forced fumbles.
“We’ve been talking about taking care of the ball,” Tucker said. “We never stop talking about taking care of the ball. Ball security is everything. And we all know what happens when you don’t take care of the football. From a takeaway standpoint, we never give up on it. We continue to emphasize it in practice and we know they come in bunches, and we knew that we had to get some takeaways — we had to force some takeaways — in this game for field position, momentum and the like.
“So, we just continue to work on it, talk about it, show examples of it — and that’s part of our preparation. We were able to get that done in practice and so we were able to carry it over to the game.”
Michigan State’s first two forced turnovers ended drives, but the Spartans were unable to capitalize on either. The first was a fumble on the opening drive of the game when defensive end Jeff Pietrowski knocked the ball from Miami quarterback D’Eriq King and the ball was recovered by linebacker Quavaris Crouch. The second was an interception by safety Angelo Grose in the second quarter.
The Spartans didn’t get points off those turnovers, but in the second half, that changed.
Drew Beesley’s strip-sack of King in the fourth quarter helped Michigan State take a 10-point lead on a 10-yard pass from Payton Thorne to Jayden Reed. And Ronald Williams’ interception later in the fourth put the victory on ice, something that was certain when Reed scored on a 10-yard run minutes later.
“I thought that was huge,” Thorne said of the turnover margin. “I can't say enough about how our defense played today. I thought they played their tails off. I know we got four (turnovers) which is huge. If you're four to nothing in the turnover battle, you have a great chance. So our defense played outstanding today.”
Better than average
It was another huge game for running back Kenneth Walker III.
The Wake Forest transfer already captured the nation’s attention in the season-opener against Northwestern when he ran for 264 yards and four touchdowns. And after scoring once in a limited role last week, he was once again the focal point of the running game on Saturday.
“As you can see, Kenneth Walker is not an average player,” Tucker said. “He’s a difference maker.”
Walker was the bulk of the offense in the first half before helping Michigan State wear down Miami in the second. He finished with 172 yards on 27 carries and added three catches for 17 yards and a touchdown.
He now has 593 yards on 57 carries with five rushing touchdowns through three games.
Of course, Walker was happier with one team stat.
“I never pay attention to my stats, honestly,” Walker said. “I don’t know until like after the game. As a team, we’re always worried about winning.”
Michigan State’s victory was far from perfect. The stat that exemplified the blemish was penalties.
The Spartans were flagged 10 times for 89 yards, though Miami did its best to match MSU by getting called for nine penalties. The biggest call was a targeting penalty on freshman cornerback Charles Brantley, who was ejected and will be out for the first half next week against Nebraska.
“We’re going to have to get back to work quickly and get better,” Tucker said. “When we turn on the tape — on offense, defense and special teams — we’re going to find a lot of areas where we can improve. And we'll put together a plan early in the week to address those issues so we can get those things fixed so we can improve, so we can have a better football team when we walk into the woodshed next Saturday night against Nebraska.”
Michigan State continued to shuffle its starting cornerbacks, going with Williams and Chester Kimbrough on Saturday. Of course, in the stifling heat, plenty were used as Kalon Gervin and Brantley also saw extensive action. There were also plenty of moves at safety, as well, as Emmanuel Flowers played and Michael Dowell and Darius Snow split time at nickel back.
… Beesley and defensive end Drew Jordan both returned to the lineup after missing last week’s game.
… Running back Elijah Collins, who hurt his foot last week, did not travel. Also out were defensive ends Michael Fletcher and Itayvion Brown, who has missed two straight games.