Explosive offense pushes Michigan State to win over Rutgers, 6-0 start

Matt Charboneau
The Detroit News

Piscataway, N.J. — It was quite the sight, Kenneth Walker III waltzing down the sideline Saturday afternoon at Rutgers, the Michigan State Heisman Trophy hopeful breaking the will of the Scarlet Knights with a third-quarter, 94-yard touchdown run.

It was the play that essentially put the game away, a 31-13 victory for No. 11 Michigan State at SHI Stadium as the Spartans remained unbeaten and became bowl eligible, something that seemed like an ambitious goal before the season but now feels like an afterthought for a team that is tied atop the Big Ten East.

It was the way the play ended — Walker reaching out to teammate Jalen Nailor for a quick handshake just before striding into the end zone — that encapsulated why the Spartans not only won on Saturday, but have been winning all season.

BOX SCORE: Michigan State 31, Rutgers 13

The bottom line is, they have the guys.

“We have playmakers,” Michigan State coach Mel Tucker said. “When you’ve got some good players — difference makers — that's what it's all about. The more good players you have the better football team you're going to be, as long as guys buy into the team kind of stuff and they play with technique and fundamentals and they play hard.

“And if you’ve got good players, they better make some plays, and I think that's what you saw.”

Michigan State wide receiver Jalen Nailor (8) is forced out of bounds by Rutgers defensive back Tre Avery during the first half of an NCAA college football game Saturday, Oct. 9, 2021, in Piscataway, N.J.

We’ve seen it most of the year for Michigan State (6-0, 3-0 Big Ten), and we surely saw it on Saturday. From Nailor’s three touchdowns and a career-high 221 receiving yards, to Walker’s 233 rushing yards to Payton Thorne’s career-best 339 passing yards and three touchdowns, it was just another impressive offensive outing as the Spartans finished with 588 total yards.

In fact, Michigan State became the fifth team in FBS history to have a 300-yard passer, 200-yard rusher and 200-yard receiver in the same game.

Not bad for a team that averaged 18 points a game last year.

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“I believe it's one word,” Walker said when he was asked to describe Michigan State’s offense. “It’s just explosive.”

Michigan State had four plays of 60 yards or more in the first three quarters, more than it has had in the past three seasons combined. Nailor had two 63-yard scoring strikes from Thorne before scoring on a 65-yard flea flicker — the third time the Spartans have cashed in on that play this season. Those all came in the first half.

By the second half, Michigan State’s defense was dialed in, pitching a shutout, and then Walker went 94 yards, the longest rushing play in Michigan State history as well as the longest play from scrimmage.

“The line did a great job on the first level and it was wide open,” Walker said. “I just took it on the left side, I saw I could bounce it around and whoever was on the outside — I think it was (Jayden) Reed, did a great job sustaining their block. I went around, got one-on-one with the safety, made a move and then it was wide open from there.”

Which led to the meeting with Nailor toward the end of the run.

“It’s not something we (planned) or anything like that,” Nailor said. “It just happened. It was just in the moment.”

Rutgers (3-3, 0-3) was game for at least the first half, doing its best to hang with the Spartans. However, after taking a 7-0 lead on an Aron Cruickshank’s 4-yard touchdown catch, the Scarlet Knights were unable to find the end zone again, twice settling for field goals, even after getting a turnover inside the Michigan State 15.

Quarterback Noah Vedral was 16-for-31 for 208 yards, but the Scarlet Knights could get nothing going in the second half as the Spartans tightened defensively, pulling away despite nine penalties and two turnovers. Shameen Jones had seven receptions for 84 yards for the Scarlet Knights.

“I look at this game, we gave up big plays,” Rutgers coach Greg Schiano said. “We gave up four big plays. We haven't done that. We haven't given up big plays. You give up big plays, it's going to be hard to do anything, right? You're behind the eight ball.

“I thought we had an opportunity to win for the better part of this football game even though we didn't play well in areas. Some guys did play well, but in areas we didn't play well enough to win and that's why we didn't win.”

More: MSU defense further establishes winning credentials in win over Rutgers

The first half was a wild one, thanks to Michigan State’s big offensive plays and Michigan State’s penchant for hurting itself.

Nailor’s first touchdown tied the score, 7-7, before back-to-back personal fouls on Jacub Panasiuk and Jacob Slade kept a Rutgers drive going with the Scarlet Knights pulling ahead, 10-7, on a 26-yard field goal from Valentino Ambrosio.

Nailor struck again five plays later with his second touchdown catch to put the Spartans ahead, 14-10, but a fumble late in the second quarter on a bad snap led to another Rutgers field goal when Thorne couldn’t grab the ball and offensive lineman Luke Campbell fumbled when he tried to run with the ball.

Nailor’s third score came on the flea flicker to give MSU a 21-13 lead, one it took to the locker room after Matt Coghlin missed a 35-yard field goal following some mismanaging of the clock in the closing seconds.

The second half started slowly, but it came to life on Michigan State’s third possession when Walker burst through the line and raced 94 yards for a touchdown to give the Spartans a 28-13 lead with 7:13 left in the third quarter. Michigan State’s defense played better in the second half, getting a fourth-down stop deep in its own end and forcing a fourth-quarter turnover when Simeon Barrow hit Vedral, forcing a fumble that was recovered by Slade.

The Spartans turned that takeaway into three points on Coghlin’s 35-yard field goal with 2:07 left. It was Coghlin’s 72nd career field goal, a Michigan State record.

“I'm really proud of our football team,” Tucker said. “They really came out today and I felt like they played really, really hard on the road. It was from start to finish. It wasn't always perfect, but the effort was there. Guys continued to just work hard and just persevered to keep working to make plays.”

A trip to Indiana is next for the Spartans before an off week and then the meeting at home with Michigan on Oct. 30.

They’ll surely be happy with the win then follow the formula they have all season by quickly switching the focus to Indiana, and only Indiana.

And having one of the most explosive offenses in the nation will make it that much easier to focus.

“We know we can make plays,” Tucker said. “We know we can drive the ball and we know that we can be explosive and get chunks. … We've done that throughout the season.”


Twitter: @mattcharboneau