Michigan State football: Memorable moments from the 2021 regular season

Matt Charboneau
The Detroit News

Atlanta — Before Michigan State even took the field Thursday night at Mercedes-Benz Stadium, the 2021 season could only be described as a resounding success.

The Spartans entered the Peach Bowl against Pittsburgh as the No. 10 team in the nation, one that was a victory away from just the sixth 11-win season in program history and already had orchestrated the biggest turnaround ever at Michigan State. After winning just two games in 2020, the first season under coach Mel Tucker, the Spartans improved on that by eight games, surprising just about everyone around college football that didn’t work inside the Michigan State football building.

Along the way, Tucker established himself in the coaching world, signing a new 10-year, $95 million contract just before Thanksgiving, while running back Kenneth Walker III thrust himself into the Heisman Trophy race. Other standouts emerged — wide receivers Jayden Reed and Jalen Nailor among them — as the Spartans won their first eight games, including a second straight victory over Michigan.

Late-season losses at Purdue and Ohio State derailed any championship hopes, but the foundation had been set for a program on a path back to competing for titles on a yearly basis.

Here’s a look back at some of the memorable moments for the Spartans:

Walker off to races

It didn’t take long for folks to realize how much of an impact Walker would have after transferring from Wake Forest. Walker took a handoff on the first play from scrimmage in the opener at Northwestern and raced 75 yards for a touchdown. By the time the game ended, Walker had scored four touchdowns, ran for a career-high 264 yards, and put the college football world on notice that things were changing at Michigan State.

Michigan State wide receiver Jayden Reed (1) had four catches for 181 yards and two touchdowns against Youngstown State.

Big-play bonanza 

A week later, the big plays kept coming, but this time it was Reed who was center stage. For the second straight game, the Spartans scored on their first play from scrimmage when Reed hauled in a 75-yard flea-flicker pass from Payton Thorne for touchdown that ignited a blowout victory over Youngstown State. The flea-flicker would prove to be a staple in the Michigan State offense, and later in the game, Reed caught an 85-yard touchdown pass as Payton Thorne threw for four touchdown passes for the first time of the season.

'To the deep end'

The first big test for Michigan State came in the South Florida heat as the Spartans went into Miami and took over late in the game to wipe out Miami, or as Tucker would say, “dragged them to the deep end.” It was a mantra that stuck around and one the student section at Spartan Stadium adopted, calling itself the “Deep End.” What it really showed was the Spartans were built to win with balance as Walker ran for 172 yards and two touchdowns, Thorne threw four more touchdown passes and Reed and Nailor both had fourth-quarter scores, two for Reed.

Nailor hammers Rutgers

When Michigan State traveled to Rutgers in Week 6, Walker and Reed had been at the forefront of the Michigan State offense while Thorne had been orchestrating the entire thing. Against the Scarlet Knights, it was Nailor’s turn to be the star as he had touchdown receptions of 63, 63 and 65 yards — all in the first half — on his way to 221 receiving yards on five receptions. His three touchdown catches tied a program record for the most in a single game while his career-high 221 receiving yards were the fourth-highest receiving total in school history while Thorne threw for a career-high 339 yards.

Michigan State running back Kenneth Walker III (9) gives a way as he races to a 94-yard touchdown run against Rutgers.

Record run

Not to be outdone in the victory at Rutgers, Walker ran for 233 yards and one touchdown on 29 carries. The one touchdown was a memorable one as Walker raced 94 yards for a touchdown, reaching out to shake hands with Nailor when they were still 10 yards from the end zone. The run was not only remarkable considering the moves Walker made, but it was also a record-setter. Not only was it the longest rushing play in program history, bettering the 90-yard run from Lynn Chandnois in 1949 vs. Arizona, it was the longest play from scrimmage in MSU history, surpassing a 93-yard pass from Tony Banks to Nigea Carter against Indiana in 1994.

Paul Bunyan sticks with MSU

Michigan State's Kenneth Walker III runs into the end zone for the go-ahead touchdown, with Michigan's Brad Hawkins giving chase, in the fourth quarter. Walker scored five touchdowns in the victory over the Wolverines.

After a gritty win at Indiana heading into an off week, the Spartans put together the signature moment of the season, rallying from a 16-point deficit in the second half to beat Michigan, a game that turned out to be the Wolverines’ only loss of the season on their way to a Big Ten title and spot in the College Football Playoff. Walker was again the star of the show, scoring five touchdowns — the most ever against a Michigan team — with two coming in the fourth quarter. The first was a 58-yard run that helped tie the game after a two-point conversion and the second was a 23-yarder that put the Spartans ahead. An interception from freshman Charles Brantley iced the victory, the second in two seasons for Tucker over the Wolverines.

Snow business

Things went off the rails the next week when Michigan State’s pass defense fell apart in a loss at Purdue and was further torched in a blowout loss at Ohio State. And as easy as it would have been for the Spartans to mail it in for the season finale at home against Penn State, Michigan State instead battled sickness and the snow to pull out a 30-27 victory for its 10th win. Walker ran for 138 yards and a touchdown while Thorne’s fourth-down touchdown pass to Reed in the fourth quarter sealed the victory and led to a celebration in the snow.


Twitter: @mattcharboneau