Michigan State downs Penn State, guts out 10th win in snowy regular-season finale
East Lansing — For most of the week, Michigan State was doing what it could to get healthy, from taking cold medicine to spending time hooked up to IVs.
By the time the week ended, the Spartans were doing snow angels, deliriously celebrating a perfect season in their home stadium with a 30-27 victory over Penn State.
It was a remarkable few days to say the least. From the time Michigan State walked off the field in Columbus a week earlier, humbled in a 49-point loss that didn’t seem that close, to the time the Spartans put the finishing touches on their 10th win, so much had happened.
First, No. 12 Michigan State needed to regroup from what could have been a demoralizing defeat. Then, the flu bug hit, piling on to a roster that was already dealing with its share of injuries. Oh, and Mel Tucker signed a 10-year, $95 million contract, making him the second-highest paid coach in college football.
So, a lot was going on, enough to make some teams lose focus.
But when the Spartans hit the field, one that resembled the North Pole as the field became a blanket of snow by the second half, it was an impressive display of resolve, capped by Payton Thorne’s 20-yard touchdown pass to Jayden Reed on fourth-and-15 with just more than five minutes to play to help secure the victory and recapture the Land Grant Trophy.
“I can't say enough about this group of guys and this group of coaches,” Tucker said. “This is a really special group and it's an honor and privilege to work with them. They are resilient, they fight like heck out there and you can tell they play for each other. I mean, this is important to them. So I'm just very proud of the team and very proud of the staff.
“It was a perfect way to send our seniors out and I’m very grateful to be the head coach for this group of guys. This is a special place and we know we're not done yet. We’ve got one more. We’ll get some guys back and have a chance to get healthy and that is going to be very important. These guys love to play football and they love to play for Michigan State, so it was a good day.”
The win was the first time Michigan State (10-2, 7-2 Big Ten) won 10 games since 2017 and it put the Spartans in position to possibly play in a New Year’s Six bowl game, something they haven’t done since reaching the College Football Playoff in 2015.
To get there, Michigan State got the most out of a roster limping to the finish. Walker was one of those ailing this week, and he ran for 138 yards and a touchdown while Reed, who sat out the second half last week, had the big touchdown and then recovered an onside kick to lock up the win.
Meanwhile, Thorne threw for 268 yards and two touchdowns while running for another, Tre Mosley had a touchdown reception and a defense that has been a punching bag for most of the season came up with a huge fourth-down stop in the fourth quarter while forcing a critical turnover.
“After last week and the way we lost and with that championship goal gone, we just came together,” Thorne said. “We said we’ve still got a lot to play for. We played for 10 wins, played for our seniors and to send them out the right way, and played for a chance to be undefeated at home this season and the chance to play in a New Year’s Six bowl. We all came together and obviously got the job done today.”
Penn State (7-5, 4-5) was the favorite to some entering the game. But in the end, the Nittany Lions hurt themselves with a missed extra point, a missed field goal and were unable to convert a fourth-and-1 late in the fourth quarter.
“Obviously, not being able to convert on fourth-and-1 and give it up on fourth-and-15 against this type of opponent on the road is going to make it difficult to win and be successful,” Penn State coach James Franklin said. “Obviously, it all starts with the running back. I thought the quarterback did a good job of extending plays and (Reed) has made big plays all year long.”
Sean Clifford threw for 313 yards and three touchdowns for Penn State, including two to Jahan Dotson, who had eight receptions for 137 yards.
But it was Michigan State was clicking on all cylinders early in the game as it took the opening possession and marched 76 yards on eight plays, getting a big third-down conversion on a 40-yard pass from Thorne to tight end Maliq Carr before Walker scored on a 2-yard run to give the Spartans a 7-0 lead less than four minutes into the game.
The defense was good early, too, forcing a three-and-out that the offense took advantage of.
On the second possession, the Spartans, who were backed up to their 1-yard line, got a 35-yard run from Walker on the first play followed by a 15-yarder. After a 23-yard strike from Thorne to Reed, Thorne scrambled on third down and found Mosley in the back of the end zone for a 9-yard touchdown pass. It put Michigan State ahead, 14-0, with 6:09 left in the first quarter.
Penn State bounced back with a six-play drive as Clifford connected with Dotson for a 27-yard touchdown pass to cut Michigan State’s lead to 14-7 with 3:37 left in the first quarter. After back-to-back three-and-outs for the Spartans, Penn State struck quickly, tying the score at 14 on a 23-second drive that ended with a 30-yard pass from Clifford to Dotson with 12:11 left in the second quarter.
Michigan State’s offense found its feet again with a 15-play drive that chewed up more than six minutes and included a fourth-down conversion when tight end Connor Heyward picked up 19 yards on fourth-and-6. The Spartans failed to find the end zone, but Matt Coghlin kicked a 22-yard field goal to give Michigan State a 17-14 lead with 5:59 left in the half.
Penn State then moved down the field to close the half, but a 27-yard field-goal attempt from Jordan Stout sailed wide right as Michigan State held the three-point lead at the break.
The second half did not start well as Thorne had a pass intercepted and returned 17 yards for a touchdown by Penn State’s Daequan Hardy, giving the Nittany Lions a 20-17 lead after the extra point was missed.
The Spartans responded, however, with a 15-play, 75-yard drive that lasted 8:53 and ended with a 1-yard touchdown plunge from Thorne. The extra point, however, was missed as Evan Johnson, in for the injured Coghlin, missed the kick, leaving Michigan State ahead, 23-20, with 2:14 left in the third quarter.
“Terrible play by me on the pick six,” Thorne said. “Really frustrating. Those are ones you think about for a while because you can't do that in a game like this, especially the second half. But it was great job by the whole offense responding to that. I kind of threw us under the bus with that dumb play.”
After the Spartans took the lead, it was the defense’s turn to make the next big play as Cal Haladay forced a fumble that was recovered by Drew Beesley. The Spartans’ offense took over and extended the lead to 30-20 on Thorne’s scoring strike to Reed with 5:10 left in the game.
“It was a really big play and we needed it in the moment,” Reed said. “That all goes to trust from the offensive coordinator to the quarterback to the O-line to the receiver. At the end of the day it’s about trust, Payton throwing that ball to me and trusting that I can make that play. I’m glad I came down with it and it was a huge play.”
Michigan State then forced a turnover on the kickoff as freshman Ma’a Gaoteote forced a fumble that was recovered by Justin White. The Spartans turned it over on downs and Penn State got a late touchdown pass to Parker Washington, but Reed recovered the onside kick to clinch the win.
“We had a lot of motivation going into this game,” Beesley said. “We kind of forgot about what happened against Ohio State. We knew that wasn't our best day of football and being undefeated (at home) and sending our seniors off the right way, I felt like both the older and the younger guys really felt motivated. They took it up a notch this week.”