How Michigan State football's Connor Heyward went from transfer portal to glory vs. U-M

A year ago, Connor Heyward’s football future was in limbo. He had left the Michigan State football program after four games and entered the NCAA transfer portal.

When Mel Tucker took over as coach in February, Heyward had a change of heart and stayed with the Spartans. And Saturday, the junior contributed three of the biggest plays of the upset of Michigan — and of his MSU career.

“He works hard every day, and he's about the team. And that's why he out there. That's why he has a role,” Tucker said. “He embraces his role. And he does it to the best of his ability. And that's what he's shown in practice. And that's why he's able to carry over into the game. Obviously, I'm proud of him”

The 6-foot, 230-pound running back started for the second straight week, finishing with 28 yards on 13 carries. In the second quarter, he caught a 2-yard touchdown pass on a screen pass from Rocky Lombardi, then, in the fourth quarter, snagged another screen pass, dashing 13 yards with a spin at the end to give MSU a 10-point lead late.

[ Mel Tucker and MSU put on a clinic. We'll see if Jim Harbaugh paid attention ]

Michigan State running back Connor Heyward scores a touchdown during the first half against Michigan on Saturday, Oct. 31, 2020, at Michigan Stadium.
Michigan State running back Connor Heyward scores a touchdown during the first half against Michigan on Saturday, Oct. 31, 2020, at Michigan Stadium.

Then after Michigan scored with 37 seconds left to make it a three-point game, Heyward smothered the ensuing onside kick. Lombardi’s 3-yard sneak on fourth-and-1 with 23 seconds remaining allowed the Spartans to run out the clock.

“He's worked really hard in the weight room, off the field, on the field,” Tucker said of Heyward. “He's assignment-sound. He's been a good teammate. He's worked on all of the technique and fundamentals that he's been taught.”

Back and forth

Michigan quarterback Joe Milton threw for 300 yards but was under duress and flushed from the pocket often by MSU’s defense.

Asked after the game about Antjuan Simmons, the senior who tied with fellow linebacker Noah Harvey for a team-high 11 tackles, Milton feigned ignorance.

“Who’s that?” Milton said.

“34, I think was his number,” a reporter clarified.

Milton countered, “I mean, I wasn’t really worried. He’s a heckuva player, but wasn’t on my radar.”

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That quote quickly got on Simmons’ radar. The Ann Arbor native, who went to Pioneer High School across the street from Michigan Stadium, quickly scoffed at and dismissed Milton’s comment.

“I mean, it don't matter — Paulie B's back with us. So I mean, I don't know what those guys do over there, but we study our opponent, we know who we're playing against. So I mean, I don't care if I'm on Joe Milton's radar or not. He's just a quarterback who plays here at Michigan. I'm not worried about what he's thinking or whatever.

Injury update

Senior center Matt Allen was not in uniform but was with the team in a track suit. Sophomore Nick Samac started in his place, helping MSU run for 126 yards a week after gaining just 50 on the ground against Rutgers.

Right guard Matt Carrick got hurt and did not return. Offensive guard Blake Bueter got dinged up but returned, as did defensive tackle Naquan Jones (right shoulder) and safety Tre Person.

Wide receiver Tre Mosley (right leg) was in uniform but did not play a significant role.

Among the rest who were not in uniform: OL Luke Campbell, OL Devontae Dobbs, WR C.J. Hayes, WR Laress Nelson, TE/FB Max Rosenthal and RB Anthony Williams.

Contact Chris Solari: Follow him on Twitter @chrissolari. Read more on the Michigan State Spartans and sign up for our Spartans newsletter.

This article originally appeared on Detroit Free Press: Michigan State football's Connor Heyward goes from transfer to glory