Monday, January 03, 2022

Michigan State football wins without best player, another statement for Mel Tucker's program


Thu, December 30, 2021, 11:15 PM·4 min read


Free Press writer Rainer Sabin answers three questions after Michigan State football defeated Pitt, 31-21, at the Peach Bowl in Atlanta:

What was life after Kenneth Walker III like for MSU’s offense?

It’s impossible to overstate the impact Kenneth Walker III made on MSU in his lone season in East Lansing. The Wake Forest transfer invigorated a dormant rushing attack that ranked among the worst in program history during coach Mel Tucker’s inaugural year. He opted out of Thursday's Peach Bowl to set his sights on an NFL career. In 12 games, Walker left his fingerprints all over the Spartans’ offense.

He ran for 1,636 yards, the second-highest total in the country. He also scored 18 times as he sprinted into the school’s record books and onto the national stage. Walker’s amazing ascent (1,636 rushing yards, 18 touchdowns) culminated with the Doak Walker Award given to the nation’s best running back and the Walter Camp Player of the Year. His vision allowed him to find holes when there didn’t appear to be any. His power helped him shed tackles. This isn’t a talent that could be replaced.

Walker’s replacements — Jordan Simmons, Harold Joiner and Elijah Collins — struggled to gain traction. Together, they accounted for 46 rushing yards on 24 carries, which averaged out to 1.91 yards per attempt.

Their struggles became more evident when Michigan State bogged down in the red zone, an area of the field where the Spartans thrived with Walker. Entering Saturday, the Spartans had the highest touchdown conversion rate (66.7%) in the Big Ten once they ventured inside the 20-yard line. But they only punched it across the goal line once in three red-zone trips

That placed an increased burden on Payton Thorne, who delivered in crunch time and accounted for a career-high 354 passing yards and MSU's three offensive touchdowns.

Did a Pitt QB's injury validate the opt-out decisions?

In this new age of college football, perhaps no topic sparks more fervor than the recent trend of players skipping bowl games to preserve their health for a shot at the NFL. The old guard argues these draft hopefuls should cross the finish line with their teams instead of bailing on them with one more opportunity to play. The non-traditionalists contend the College Football Playoff has turned bowls into exhibitions and players shouldn’t risk their pro prospects by exposing themselves to potential injuries.

The debate raged in advance of the Peach Bowl, where Walker and Pitt quarterback Kenny Pickett elected to sit out the game. The two headliners were conspicuous by their absence and the sizzle surrounding the matchup disappeared. But their decisions were validated when Pickett’s replacement, Nick Patti, was knocked out with a left-arm injury after crashing into out of bounds during a 16-yard touchdown run in the first quarter. Patti was later spotted in a sling as Pickett, a Heisman Trophy finalist, watched from above. Could that have happened to him?

The question may have crossed his mind and Walker’s, too. Certainly, others were thinking those thoughts as the debate about opt outs continued.

What does this win mean for Michigan State?

The progress MSU made in Tucker’s second season has been nothing short of remarkable. A year after crashing to a 2-5 record that triggered a roster overhaul, the Spartans achieved double-digit victories, qualified for New Year’s Six bowl and handed rival Michigan its only loss. The future seems bright in East Lansing, and the promise Tucker showed prompted a pair of MSU boosters to lock him down with a $95 million contract extension.

Tucker began to offer some major dividends Thursday when he led the Spartans to an improbable comeback victory.

An offense without Walker managed to find a pathway to end zone as Thorne spearheaded a pair of fourth-quarter touchdown drives. A relentless pass rush stymied Pittsburgh's passing attack, which was blunted after Patti was sidelined.

Is this win a bellwether for what's in store in 2022? It's too early to tell. But a loss would have stung a program that flirted with a third defeat in its last five games. Instead, the resilient Spartans found a way.

By doing so, they changed the mood of their fanbase heading into the offseason. Sure there will be skeptics who wonder about a rushing attack that was toothless without Walker. And there will be doubters wondering about MSU's suspect pass defense rarely tested by Pitt's third-string quarterback. But by and large, the majority of MSU's supporters will relish a fantastic 11-2 season that no one could have predicted. They'll recognize this program overachieved and has positioned itself for a better tomorrow.

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