1. That’s a program win by MSU, if there ever was one
EAST LANSING – You could see the embarrassment in Michigan State’s players last week. The Spartans had spent the season convincing the college football world and themselves that they were contenders, only to have Ohio State say otherwise, emphatically.
It takes having a little something inside of you to come back from that with as much juice as the Spartans had Saturday in a 30-27 win against Penn State. This was a program win, if there ever was one — a meaningful win, a 10th win, a win that keeps MSU in the conversation for a New Year’s Six Bowl game and caps a marvelous season with good vibes. The close to 60,000 MSU fans who braved the roads and the elements, and the many more watching on TV, will remember this winter wonderland game for a long time. So will MSU's players, who showed some serious mettle with how they performed against the Big Ten’s best scoring defense and a Nittany Lions program that blended into the snow.
MSU’s best players had big games when it was absolutely needed, restoring the reputation of this offense. Quarterback Payton Thorne’s 19-for-30, 268-yard, two-touchdown, one-interception passing day might have been his best yet, given the conditions. His 20-yard touchdown pass to Jayden Reed in the corner of the end zone on fourth-and-15 to put MSU ahead 30-20 is the throw of his career thus far. That catch by Reed, who watched the end of last week’s game with a boot on his foot, was equally good. He had six catches for 89 yards Saturday and recovered the game-clinching onside kick, while playing at less than 100%.
Kenneth Walker, out of the Heisman Trophy conversation after last week, ran like he was born for this weather, running 30 times for 138 yards and a score. He’s back in the conversation. More on that below.
MSU’s defense, rightfully maligned after what happened in Columbus, played with grit and pride, despite having just two healthy cornerbacks. The Spartans were back to being opportunistic and timely, with three forced turnovers, one on special teams. Penn State’s 374 yards and 23-plus minutes of possession was nothing compared to recent MSU opponents.
The Spartans won a game a lot of folks didn’t think they would — including me — finishing a regular season nobody thought they’d have.
2. MSU now has a decent shot at a New Year’s Six bowl game
The Spartans are very possibly headed to either the Fiesta Bowl in Glendale, Arizona, or the Peach Bowl in Atlanta — both of them among the coveted New Year’s Six bowl games — after their win over Penn State.
Those games go to the top 12 teams in the College Football rankings, provided each Power-Five conference and the top Group-of-Five conference champion is included in that dozen. MSU entered this week ranked No. 12. The only league left out of the top 12 right now is the ACC, where No. 17 Pittsburgh and No. 18 Wake Forest will meet for the championship next week. One of those teams will have to be in. So MSU is essentially 13th as it stands. If Iowa beats Michigan in the Big Ten championship game, the Hawkeyes would overtake MSU, too. The same could happen if Cincinnati loses, but doesn’t fall behind MSU, and another Group of Five champion takes a spot.
But if Michigan wins the Big Ten championship — as tough as that might be to stomach — there’s a chance the Spartans could be among the teams headed to a New Year’s Six bowl, largely depending on what happens with the Big 12, where Oklahoma, Baylor and Oklahoma State are just ahead of the Spartans. No. 7 Oklahoma State beat No. 11 Oklahoma on Saturday night, perhaps helping MSU, and faces No. 8 Baylor for the league title next week.
There’s a lot still to be decided by next week’s conference championship games. But MSU, which finishes the regular season 10-2, did what it could Saturday to be in the mix. If it doesn’t get a New Year’s Six game, the Citrus Bowl in Orlando, Outback Bowl in Tampa — both on New Year’s Day — or the Las Vegas Bowl on Dec. 30 (the Big Ten’s other Tier 1 game, replacing the Holiday Bowl) are the likely destinations.
3. A perfect storm again and Kenneth Walker is back in Heisman contention
MSU fans, I’m sure, hated watching Michigan bully Ohio State to earn a berth in the Big Ten championship game. But here’s a silver lining: Despite still-gaudy numbers from Buckeyes redshirt freshman quarterback C.J. Stroud — 34-for-49 passing, 394 yards, two touchdowns and no interceptions — Stroud’s final impression on Heisman Trophy voters was less than superhuman. When faced with pressure and a viable pass rush for the first time, he couldn’t lead the Buckeyes past their rival in what will likely be the most-watched game of the season.
Likewise, Alabama’s young Heisman candidate QB, Bryce Young, struggled mightily in the Tide’s game at Auburn. In a year without a Heisman frontrunner, neither Stroud nor Young did anything to win it Saturday.
Next in line might be Walker, who carried 30 times for 138 yards and a touchdown, retaking the rushing lead nationally among major conference running backs at 1,614. That’s the most yards by an MSU running back in a regular season since Le’Veon Bell’s 1,648 through 12 games in 2012. And, before that, Lorenzo White in 1985.
Walker should have secured his place on the stage on Dec. 11 in New York. Can he be more than a Heisman finalist? The two quarterbacks he’s competing against helped make things interesting again Saturday. I still don’t think it’ll be enough. But everything that had to break Walker’s way did on Saturday.
Everything except …
Aidan Hutchinson’s monster performance against the Buckeyes. Judging by the Las Vegas odds (which don’t have a vote), Hutchinson is now the other guy that’s seriously in play. His three sacks of Stroud on Saturday might propel him into the conversation.
Bonus take: A good showing by MSU fans at Spartan Stadium
With the roads a mess, a steady snowfall and temperatures in the low 30s at kickoff (and the 20s by the second half), MSU fans showed up for this one. I’d say between 55,000 and 60,000 at kickoff, with more than 50,000 still around after halftime — including most of the students who showed up for the beginning. Considering the weather and that it’s Thanksgiving break, these kids were either incredibly sick of their families or they appreciated this team enough to heed the call from Mel Tucker to show up and stick around.
I thought there’d be 35,000 empty seats Saturday. Instead, MSU fans rallied around this team. Enough of them, at least to create a good atmosphere, worthy of the season they’d just watched. And while it was an easy ticket to get, it was a still a heckuva fan showing coming off last week’s demoralizing loss to Ohio State and in conditions that made travel difficult and sitting at Spartan Stadium less than comfy — though, from a warm press box, it looked kinda fun.
Contact Graham Couch at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @Graham_Couch.
This article originally appeared on Lansing State Journal: Michigan State football bounces back, beats Penn State: 3 quick takes