The opening weekend loss to Illinois has put the Huskers in the unenviable position of having to finish out 4-4 in the Big 10 with five of those eight teams being ranked if they want to go bowling again. To make it even more difficult, the unranked teams in that group are Purdue, Minnesota and Northwestern - three squads which have had some success against the Huskers in the last few seasons.
First up in the gauntlet are the Michigan State Spartans who have jumped out to the 3-0 start for which the Huskers were hoping, the most recent win of which was a 38-17 shellacking of Miami. Although the Spartans and Huskers are no strangers to each other, this is their first meeting since 2018 and the first trip to East Lansing since 2014.
To fill in with current thoughts and the state of Mel Tucker’s retooled roster, Ryan O’Bleness of The Only Colors was kind enough to answer some of our questions from Corn Nation way. He filled us in on where everyone there stands on the Spartans’ hot start, what we can expect on both sides of the ball from MSU, and, for those of you making the trip northeast this Saturday, provided quite few pre and post-game drinking and dining options.
Thanks so much Ryan and let’s get straight to it!
1) So three games in and the Spartans have already surpassed the win total for 2020. Have fans bought in after the shellacking of Miami or is everyone more in let’s wait and see mode?
It’s a funny thing. Three or four weeks ago, Michigan State fans had no idea what to expect from the Spartans in 2021. Head coach Mel Tucker completely revamped the roster, bringing in around 20 transfers, and many of whom are scholarship players who have already made an impact in the early season. There were also 27 or so players who transferred out of the program after the 2020 season and others who graduated or pursued the NFL. I don’t recall a time where there has ever been that amount of roster turnover in previous seasons. But Tucker brought in his guys. He laid the foundation for the culture he wants to have. The players and the staff all bought in, and have pleasantly surprised MSU fans through the first three weeks of the season.
There is still work to do, but Michigan State fans are 100 percent invested in this team, and have also bought into Tucker’s plan and vision. Prior to the season starting, many thought this would be a five-or-six win team, maximum, but now the ceiling looks more like 10 or 11 wins (counting a potential bowl victory). Realistically, this is probably an eight or nine win team right now, with the potential to play in a good bowl game. Obviously, Ohio State and Penn State are still the teams to beat in the Big Ten East. Michigan and Rutgers are playing well, too, and Indiana has struggled early, but has a solid roster. This division is no picnic. As for this week, Nebraska always gives Michigan State fits.
To answer your question, though, Michigan State fans are very confident in this team, but the Spartans still have much to prove, and we’ll see how it plays out.
2) The Michigan St. running game is getting most the attention, but with the run/pass mix at 58/42, the attack appears more balanced than maybe they’re getting credit for. How dangerous are Payton Thorne, Jayden Reed and the rest of the receiving corps?
There was a lot of debate throughout the offseason whether or not Payton Thorne or Temple graduate transfer Anthony Russo would be the starting quarterback for Michigan State. Mel Tucker didn’t announce Thorne as the starter until minutes before the season opener against Northwestern. And to his credit, Thorne, as a redshirt sophomore, has shown exactly why he was able to beat out the more experienced Russo. So far through three games, Thorne has protected the football (he has zero turnovers), made good decisions, been fairly accurate (62.3 percent completion rate) and leads the Big Ten in passing touchdowns (nine) and in passing efficiency (180.1 rating). He has been the perfect guy to lead Michigan State’s new-look offense.
Due to the presence of Kenneth Walker III and the constant threat in the running game, Michigan State is dangerous in the play-action passing game with Thorne and Jayden Reed. As I mentioned, Thorne makes good decisions with the football, and doesn’t turn the ball over, so he is going to put the ball where only his receiver can get it or throw it away (or tuck it and run — he is surprisingly mobile as well). Reed is Michigan State’s most complete wide receiver, and while he doesn’t have excellent size at 6-foot and 185 pounds, he is a play-maker. Reed has great speed and can beat defenses over the top, or he can hurt you in the intermediate passing game. He’s tough to cover no matter where he is on the field, and Jalen Nailor and Tre Mosley are also solid receivers as well — Nailor is a speed guy (hence his nickname, “Speedy’) and Mosley provides some size at 6-foot-2 and 195 pounds.
3) We know of Thorne, Reed and, of course, Kenneth Walker III. Who is someone else on offense who will make their presence known Saturday? Same question for defense - what names should we get familiar with?
Obviously Walker is the key and the offense will flow through him, and I already mentioned the main names in the passing game with Thorne, Reed, Nailor and Mosley, but another name to look out for on the offense is Connor Heyward. Heyward is a former running back who is now playing an H-back/tight end role, and it suits him perfectly. He may not have a big presence in the box score (he has six catches for 77 yards so far this season), but watch out for the little things No. 11 does to help his team — blocking, being a team leader and just doing the dirty work that it takes to get hard-fought victories.
Watch Heyward block two different guys here to help Reed score a touchdown on an end-around play against Miami (FL)
On defense, safety Xavier Henderson is the unquestioned leader of the team and will make plays all over the field. For more under-the-radar names, watch linebackers Cal Haladay and Quavaris Crouch (a Tennessee transfer), as those two always seem to be near the football.
4) Mel Tucker has asked Michigan St. fans not to sell tickets to Husker fans and said he expects not one more Husker fan than the 2500 tickets allotted for visiting fans. Will Sparty fans be the first to keep road-tripping Huskers out of their stadium?
I’m sure there will be some secondary market tickets sold to Nebraska fans, and I know the Cornhuskers faithful always travels well. There will undoubtedly be more than 2,500 Nebraska supporters in Spartan Stadium, I’m sure, but I do anticipate “The Woodshed,” as Tucker now refers to it, to be rocking with the large majority of the 70,000-plus spectators being MSU fans. The Nebraska game will also be the “Stripe the Stadium” game where alternating sections wear either green or white shirts. Maybe there will be a couple pockets of red mixed in there, but I definitely expect it to be high-majority of Spartans fans — and it will be loud.
5) Speaking of our fans, help us out - what are some friendly haunts near the stadium where visiting fans can hang and enjoy some good eats and drinks?
Crunchy’s is a bit of a cliche answer, but it’s definitely a staple of the East Lansing game day experience if you’re looking for a good place to eat before the game. Harper’s Restaurant and Brewpub is another solid option, as is the Peanut Barrel. If you’re looking for pizza, check out Pizza House for sure. I know y’all have one of these in Lincoln as well, but HopCat is always fun, too. Honestly, there are a lot of great options for food close to the stadium. If you’re looking for something sweet, be sure to stop by the MSU Dairy Store on campus for ice cream. If you’re into craft beers, one of my personal favorite perhaps lesser-known breweries is Ellison, which is roughly two or so miles from Spartan Stadium.
6) Prognostication time - the spread is currently sitting around Michigan St. -5. Who’s gonna take it and what’s the final score going to be?
I think Michigan State is playing confident football right now. The players and the entire program have bought into Mel Tucker’s process. I also think the Spartans have the more talented roster overall. With that said, Nebraska always seems to play Michigan State tough. I think it will be close, but MSU breaks away in the fourth quarter and gets the victory by a final score around 30-21.