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Previewing the 2021 Michigan State Spartans

A couple of shocking upsets brightened up what otherwise was a meek year zero for Mel Tucker at Michigan State. It’s only up from there, right?

Rutgers v Michigan State Photo by Quinn Harris/Getty Images

When Husker fans last saw Michigan State, it was a touchdown-free game in the snow that gave us the impression that Scott Frost’s Huskers’ had turned the corner in 2018. That may have been a false read based on a single game in ugly weather conditions against an opponent on a downward trajectory. Mark Dantonio retired after the 2019 season, with Mel Tucker taking over for a schizophrenic 2020 season that symbolized the dysfunctional COVID season. The Spartans went 2-5, but the wins probably were some of the most surprising results of the Big Ten season. One week after looking inept against Rutgers with seven turnovers, the Spartans went into the Big House and led Michigan the entire afternoon. After two more bad losses to Iowa and Indiana, Sparty upset Northwestern, the West Division champion. The season wrapped up with a blowout loss to a short-handed Ohio State squad followed by a loss to Penn State where the Spartans squandered a 21-10 halftime lead.

Tucker arrived at Michigan State after a single season at Colorado, which featured Nebraska squandering a 17-0 halftime lead in front of a partisan Husker visiting field crowd in West Evanston, thanks to a 99 yard flea flicker that completely flipped the momentum of the game. The Buffaloes finished the 2019 season with a 5-7 record before Tucker decided to jump when Michigan State made him an offer he couldn’t refuse. Colorado actually seemed to benefit by getting a mulligan on the hire, going 4-2 in 2020 under Karl Dorrell. The Spartans, on the other hand, are picked to finish last in the Big Ten’s East Division despite returning 16 starters.

Two candidates emerged this spring to take over as the Spartans’ staring quarterback. Redshirt freshman Payton Thorne (6’2” 215 lbs.) came on at the end of last season, starting the final game against Penn State. He completed 56% of his passes with three touchdowns and three interceptions. Temple transfer Anthony Russo (6’4” 245 lbs.) started 26 games for the Owls, completing 60% of his passes for 6,292 yards, 44 touchdowns and 32 interceptions in his career. Last year, Russo completed 68% of his passes with nine touchdowns and six interceptions in an injury shortened season at Temple.

Michigan State’s running back corps was pretty much a mess in 2020, finishing 122nd in rushing nationally. Elijah Collins (6’1” 215 lbs.), who led the Spartans in 2019 with 988 yards, was limited to just 41 carries for 90 yards while recovering from the effects of COVID. Connor Heyward (6’0” 230 lbs.), the son of the late Craig “Ironhead” Heyward, started six games in 2020, but rushed for just 200 yards, averaging 3.1 yards per carry. Jordan Simmons (5’11” 195 lbs.) rushed for 219 yards as a true freshman, averaging 3.9 yards per carry. Transfer Kenneth Walker (5’10” 205 lbs.) rushed for 579 yards and 13 touchdowns last season at Wake Forest (which, by the way is 13 more than all of Michigan State’s running backs combined scored last season), averaging 4.9 yards per carry. You have to expect Michigan State to be better running the ball in 2021 because it would hard to be worse.

Seven of Michigan State’s top eight receivers from last season return, led by Jalen Nailor (6’0” 185 lbs.) and Jayden Reed (6’0” 180 lbs.). Nailor caught 26 passes for 515 yards and four touchdowns last season, while Reed caught 33 passes for 407 yards and three touchdowns. The X-factor is Ricky White (6’1” 175 lbs.) who caught eight passes for 196 yards in the upset of Michigan, then got injured and only caught two more passes the rest of the season.

Michigan State’s entire two-deep on the offensive line returns in 2021 after a season where injuries and opt-outs jumbled the depth chart. An interesting addition is Arkansas State transfer Jarrett Horst (6’6” 305 lbs.), a third team all-Sun Belt honoree in 2019 who had started 20 games the last two seasons.

Defensively, Michigan State returns seven starters from the worst Big Ten defense in terms of points allowed. (How not Spartan-like.) Interestingly, Michigan State wasn’t as generous in allowing yards, ranking seventh in the Big Ten with 397 yards allowed per game. Up front, three starters return, led by defensive ends Jacub Panasiuk (6’4” 250 lbs.) and Drew Beesley (6’2” 260 lbs.). Panasiuk has been a three-year starter for the Spartans while Beesley led last season with three sacks and three quarterback hurries.

At linebacker, Michigan State needs to replace their top tackler from last season but do return four of the top five, led by middle linebacker Noah Harvey (6’4” 235 lbs.) who was the second leading tackler with 54 last season. Tennessee transfer Quavaris (6’2” 235 lbs.) started 11 games the last two seasons for the Vols with 85 tackles; he looks to take over at weakside linebacker.

Safety Xavier Henderson (6’1” 210 lbs.) has stared 20 games in his Michigan State career; last season, he was third on the team with 41 tackles. Cornerback Kalon Gervin (5’11” 185 lbs.) led the Spartans with four pass breakups last season.

One factor to keep in mind about last season is that Mel Tucker’s first spring with Michigan State was cut short due to COVID, so the implementation of the new systems had to wait until preseason practice began. So it shouldn’t have been a surprise that the Spartans struggled in 2020. Will those “year zero” problems carry over to 2021? Probably not, but in the Big Ten’s East Division, progress can be difficult to achieve.


What’s your prediction for the Huskers vs. Spartans?

This poll is closed

  • 28%
    Huskers do their Jake Cotton impression and fall on their butt in East Lansing. An embarrassing loss.
    (28 votes)
  • 40%
    It’s ugly, but Nebraska finds a way to win.
    (39 votes)
  • 30%
    Huskers dominate Sparty.
    (30 votes)
97 votes total Vote Now