'An epic game': Behind Kenneth Walker III's five TDs, Michigan State chops down Michigan
East Lansing — For many, it’s a cute saying.
A silly mantra, even.
But for Michigan State and coach Mel Tucker, who has been preaching to his team all season to “keep chopping,” it’s become their identity.
It was the case earlier this season in victories over Nebraska and Indiana, two games where the Spartans didn’t play their best but still found ways to win.
And on Saturday in front of a packed house of 76,549 at Spartan Stadium, in the biggest game the Spartans have played since at least the 2015 playoff season, the mantra was leaned on again as No. 8 Michigan State found itself down 16 points to No. 6 Michigan in the second half.
Fortunately for Michigan State, it has one of the best running backs in the nation.
Behind 197 yards and five touchdowns from Kenneth Walker III, three coming in the final 19 minutes of the game, the Spartans (8-0, 5-0 Big Ten) outscored Michigan 23-3 down the stretch to pull out the 37-33 victory and move Tucker to 2-0 in his brief tenure, the only Michigan State coach to win his first two games against Michigan after last season’s 27-24 win in Ann Arbor and retain the Paul Bunyan Trophy.
“When you come here, you know the importance of Paul Bunyan,” said quarterback Payton Thorne, who was 19-for-30 passing for 196 yards and brushed off two first-half interceptions. “He sits right in our lobby all year. We play for each other and our coaches, but most importantly, we play for the former players that have been here. It means so much to them because they have had a taste of it. They know what it feels like. I had them in mind all game to be honest. You don't want to let those guys down. You know they are watching.”
What they saw was a classic, two heavyweights throwing haymakers for four hours.
Michigan (7-1, 4-1) had the advantage early, scoring 10 points off the Thorne interceptions and appearing to take control midway through the third quarter. But late, it was Michigan State’s offense that came to life as the defense came up big, getting two turnovers, as well, the last an interception from Charles Brantley that iced the game.
“That was an epic game,” Tucker said. “That was a classic. It was an honor to be part of it.”
It surely was, but especially so for Michigan State, which limited the Michigan rushing attack, which entered the game averaging 253 yards a game, to 146.
However, the Wolverines were productive through the air as Cade McNamara threw for a career-high 383 yards and two touchdowns while Michigan piled up 552 total yards. Freshman wide receiver Andrel Anthony had a huge day, catching six passes for 155 yards and two touchdowns. They were all firsts for the East Lansing native, whose only touch prior was a 6-yard run last week against Northwestern.
“This one stinks for sure,” McNamara said. “We’ve got to be able to bounce back. We can’t let this game define our season.”
As good as Michigan’s offense was through two-and-half quarters, the Wolverines settled for four field goals, including one in the fourth quarter that broke a tie but left room for the Spartans to rally.
“Yeah, this didn't go the way we wanted to,” said Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh, who lost in East Lansing for the first time and fell to 3-4 in the rivalry. “We are going to learn from it and strengthen our resolve moving forward.”
It didn’t take long for the big plays to come.
On their first possession, which started after Thorne’s first interception by Michigan’s R.J. Moten, the Wolverines struck quickly, getting a 93-yard touchdown pass from McNamara to Anthony. Thorne was then picked off again when a batted pass was hauled in by Michigan’s Mike Morris, leading to the first of four Jake Moody field goals to give the Wolverines a 10-0 lead.
Michigan State’s offense finally started to find some rhythm late in the first quarter as Walker scored on a 27-yard run to cut the Michigan lead to 10-7 on the first play of the second quarter.
After Michigan got another Moody field goal, Walker scored again, this time on an 8-yard run after Michigan State converted on fourth down when Thorne hit Jalen Nailor with a 40-yard gain, setting Walker up to give the Spartans a 14-13 lead with 7:16 left in the second quarter.
Michigan responded, though, with a 78-yard drive that ended with Anthony’s 17-yard touchdown pass then added a 35-yard field goal with two seconds left to push the lead to nine.
“He played outstanding,” Harbaugh said of Anthony. “I'm really proud of Andrel.”
Michigan State got a big break to open the second half when a Michigan botched punt allowed the Spartans to take over at their 40. But a first-down holding call doomed the drive and three plays later, Michigan State punted. The Wolverines took advantage as McNamara hit Mike Sainristil with a 19-yard touchdown pass to give Michigan a 30-14 lead with 6:47 left in the third quarter.
It was then that the Spartans went back to their creed, “keep chopping.”
“Going into the second half, we knew that we were going to have to start fast,” Walker said. “Coach Tucker made it apparent. He does a good job of keeping us going and making sure we're intense so when we came out in the second half, we knew we were going to have to do that.”
The Spartans bounced back, converting on a fourth-and-four when Thorne connected with Jayden Reed for a 28-yard pass to the Michigan 1. Walker plowed in on the next play for his third touchdown, and when Thorne hit Tre Mosley with a two-point conversion pass, the Michigan lead was cut to 30-22 with 3:58 left in the third quarter.
Michigan State then got a big stop and responded with Walker’s fourth touchdown run, a 58-yarder, to pull within two points. Thorne then hit Reed with a two-point pass to tie the game at 30 with 12:29 left in the game.
“I just knew, at that point, to keep choppin',” Walker said. “We go over it every practice. Every game. That's our motto. Keep choppin'. I knew that was going to be what we had to do.”
The Wolverines responded by getting a 36-yard field goal from Moody to pull back ahead, 33-30, with 9:20 to play, but the Spartans then got a huge play defensively as freshman quarterback J.J. McCarthy, in for McNamara, lost the handle on a handoff and it was recovered by Jacub Panasiuk at the Michigan 41.
Seven plays later, Walker scampered 23 yards for his fifth touchdown to put Michigan State ahead, 37-33, with 5:08 remaining.
Michigan had two chances to rally but couldn’t convert on fourth down from the MSU 31, and after Michigan State failed to pick up a first down and was forced to punt, Brantley got the clinching interception.
“This one means a ton,” Reed said. “It's bigger than the team. Alumni, fans, everybody in Spartan Nation, this one means a lot. We take pride in this game and every year we take pride in it. We work as hard as we can to come out on top. We'll continue to work hard and focus on next week.”