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It’s time to start paying attention to what’s going on at Michigan State.
Michigan State opened the season by beating Northwestern on the road and Youngstown State at home. MSU showed some signs of progress in those wins, but going on the road and completely outmuscling No. 24 Miami 38-17 on Saturday made a serious statement.
The Spartans are in just their second season under Mel Tucker, and Tucker has done a really good job injecting life into this program. Through three games in 2021, Michigan State looks like it has taken significant strides compared to the lifeless program he inherited from Mark Dantonio.
Wake Forest transfer Kenneth Walker has given MSU a big-play threat at the running back position that it has lacked for years. The presence of Walker, who rushed for 172 yards on Saturday, opens things up for the passing game. MSU has some legitimate speed at receiver, and quarterback Payton Thorne has been able to consistently spread the ball around to Jalen Nailor, Jaylen Reed and Tre Mosley.
In Saturday’s win, Nailor and Reed both reached the end zone twice in the second half. Michigan State’s lead was 10-7 at halftime, but the Spartans extended that lead to 17-7 midway through the third when Thorne found Nailor for an 11-yard score.
After Miami cut MSU’s lead to 17-14, the Spartans again opened up a 10-point lead on a 10-yard TD pass to Reed early in the fourth.
Late in the fourth, after Miami got back within a touchdown, Michigan State went back ahead by two scores when Nailor got loose behind the Miami defense for a 39-yard touchdown.
Michigan State wildin’ on Miami now…
Jalen Nailor takes home a 39 yard TD for the Spartans 🗡pic.twitter.com/qZ4XNCl72Q
— PFF College (@PFF_College) September 18, 2021
On the ensuing possession, Miami turned it over for a fourth time, this time on D’Eriq King’s second interception. Four plays later, Reed scored on an end-around from eight yards out to put the final nail in the coffin in the 38-17 victory.
What does this mean for Michigan State?
The next challenge for Tucker is to not let up. A letdown is always possible following a big upset victory, and next week Nebraska visits East Lansing. Nebraska gave No. 3 Oklahoma a game on Saturday, so MSU (3-0) will need to continue playing at a high level to keep this momentum going.
The schedule moving forward is very manageable, the Nebraska game included. After the Huskers, MSU has Western Kentucky at home before back-to-back road games against Rutgers and Indiana.
A bye week follows the trip to Indiana. From there, MSU will play Michigan, Ohio State and Penn State in three of its final five games.
It’s very possible MSU slips up a few times along the way, but it’s hard to envision the Spartans not having a say in the Big Ten East race as the season progresses.
What about Miami?
The pressure is going to start intensifying for Miami head coach Manny Diaz. And maybe that’s unfair.
Diaz’s tenure has been all over the place. In his first season, 2019, Miami started 0-2, won six of eight and then lost its final three, including to Florida International and Louisiana Tech.
In 2020, Miami started 8-1 with its only loss coming on the road against Clemson. However, the Hurricanes lost their final two games last year and are now 1-2 to start the 2021 season.
The Hurricanes started this season by getting blown out by Alabama, 44-13. There aren’t many teams in the country capable of playing a close game with Alabama, but the last two games have been much more concerning. The Hurricanes barely beat Appalachian State, 25-23, a week ago.
Saturday’s game was closer than the final score may indicate, but the four turnovers and the complete inability to run the ball on offense are major concerns. The defense has holes, too.
The Hurricanes could very well rebound and have a winning season. The ACC Coastal is wide open. But this team does not look like a legitimate ACC contender or even a top 15 team, something many Miami fans expected.