Michigan State football's new additions send message to Big Ten: 2020 is a distant memory

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Free Press writer Rainer Sabin answers three questions after Michigan State football defeated Northwestern, 38-21, Friday in Evanston, Illinois:

Could Michigan State establish its running game?

All the way back in the spring, MSU coach Mel Tucker rued the low production generated by the Spartans’ ground attack last fall. The Spartans averaged 91.4 rushing yards per game — the lowest figure recorded in Michigan State’s logs, dating back to 1947. The struggles, which reached historic proportions, were reinforced by another shocking stat: MSU scored two rushing touchdowns all season and neither was by a running back.

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Michigan State running back Kenneth Walker III., right, is tackled by Northwestern linebacker Khalid Jones during the first half on Friday, Sept. 3, 2021, in Evanston, Illinois.
Michigan State running back Kenneth Walker III., right, is tackled by Northwestern linebacker Khalid Jones during the first half on Friday, Sept. 3, 2021, in Evanston, Illinois.

“Putrid might be a word that could be used,” Tucker said. “It is what it is. We need to get better. If we can’t run the ball on our own terms, we can’t beat good teams. We just can’t do it. We need to be able to run the ball when we want to run it and that’s going to take everyone. So, we have a sense of urgency in our run game. I expect our run game to be much better.”

Tucker’s message was received loud and clear and reverberated on Michigan State’s first play from scrimmage. That’s when transfer running back Kenneth Walker III veered left, slipped a tackle and raced 75 yards for a touchdown. By the end of the first quarter, he had gained 107 yards — almost 16 more than the Spartans’ per-game rushing average in 2020. Walker’s impact was immediate and forceful. He averaged 11.5 yards per touch and spearheaded a ground attack that gained a whopping 326 yards and cracked the end zone four times. But what can’t be lost in the enthusiasm about Walker’s performance is the improvement of an offensive line that was a liability last season. On several of Walker’s runs, he zipped through yawning holes. It must have been a sight to behold for Tucker, who got exactly he wanted and then some.

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How did Payton Thorne perform as the starting QB?

Tucker refused to tip his hand, keeping the decision under wraps until kickoff. Would he pick third-year player Payton Thorne or transfer Anthony Russo to run the offense?

Thorne was given the nod and he got the job done, playing efficiently while avoiding costly mistakes. Buttressed by a potent running game, Thorne simply had to help sustain drives. He did so with timely throws. In fact, 11 of his 15 completions resulted in first downs, including a 14-yard screen pass that resulted in a score.

Since he debuted last season, Thorne has always appeared to play with confidence and fluidity — both as a passer and a runner.

Michigan State quarterback Payton Thorne passes the ball against Northwestern during the first quarter on Friday, Sept. 3, 2021, in Evanston, Illinois.
Michigan State quarterback Payton Thorne passes the ball against Northwestern during the first quarter on Friday, Sept. 3, 2021, in Evanston, Illinois.

Even with Russo already aboard, he looked like the best quarterback on the team in Michigan State’s final spring practice. So, it wasn’t a surprise he won the starting job in the preseason.

Thorne then rewarded Tucker’s faith in him with a solid performance Friday, throwing for 185 yards and a touchdown.

Did the transfers make an impact?

There was so much mystery surrounding MSU heading into Tucker’s second season that it felt as if it was a continuation of his first year in East Lansing.

Tucker heard others make that observation, but he pushed back against it. He was reluctant to embrace the idea the Spartans were still in an awkward transitional phase. Yet it was undeniable the Spartans had experienced some major changes.

There are 41 new players on a roster that deleted a lot of names from the 2020 team that either exhausted their eligibility or left via the transfer portal.

Some of them were bound to play immediately. The question was whether they could boost Michigan State instantaneously.

Well, that answer was delivered swiftly.

Walker scored on the opening play and dominated the stat box, emerging as the star of the night with 264 rushing yards. Jarrett Horst, the offensive tackle from Arkansas State, protected Thorne’s blindside and sealed the edges on some big runs outside the left edge. Quavaris Crouch, who came from Tennessee, had an uneven performance. He was overpowered on Evan Hull’s 49-yard run on the first play of the second half and got lost in coverage on a 25-yard completion, but he also collected a sack and seven stops. Ronald Williams, the cornerback who spent a year at Alabama, surrendered a 47-yard completion and a late touchdown pass but proved a capable tackler. Overall, the positives far outweighed the negatives with some of MSU’s new additions.

Contact Rainer Sabin at rsabin@freepress.com. Follow him on Twitter @RainerSabin. Read more on the Michigan Wolverines, Michigan State Spartans and sign up for our Big Ten newsletter.

This article originally appeared on Detroit Free Press: Michigan State football's new additions make instant impact