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Opponent Q&A: Talking Michigan State Spartans Football

Find out what makes the Spartans a contender in the crowded Big 10 East

NCAA Football: Maryland at Michigan State Mike Carter-USA TODAY Sports

Earlier this week we had the chance to talk to Ryan O’Bleness from the The Only Colors regarding this week’s matchup with the Huskies.

Here’s what we learned in our Q&A:

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UWDP: QB Payton Thorne completed 60% of his passes a year ago with a solid 8.3 yards per attempt, and he’s on about that same pace in 2022. What does he bring to the table in terms of decision making and big play ability? How has his pass protection held up this season?

Ryan O’Bleness: Payton Thorne is an incredibly smart and cerebral player at the quarterback position, which isn’t surprising since he grew up with both his father and grandfather as coaches throughout his entire childhood (Jeff Thorne, Payton’s dad, is currently the offensive coordinator at Western Michigan). He is a true leader for the team and Michigan State’s success in 2022 hinges on Thorne’s play. In 2021, Thorne set the Michigan State program single-season record for touchdown passes with 27. He has an affinity for big plays, as MSU fans saw throughout all of the 2021 season and in the season opener against Western Michigan when three of Thorne’s four touchdown passes went for more than 40 yards. Thorne is also athletic and fairly mobile — he can pick up first downs with his feet when needed.

NCAA Football: Western Michigan at Michigan State
Payton Thorne has won 13 of 16 games since becoming the starter at Michigan State.

However, Thorne has really struggled to begin the 2022 campaign. He is the first one to admit that his play has not been up to par, calling his two interceptions against Akron “unacceptable.” Thorne has thrown three interceptions in two games, and beyond that, he has been sailing balls high and overthrowing his wide receivers against lower-level competition thus far. He’s remained poised, but there is something off with his footwork, his throwing mechanics or his ability to connect with the wide receivers. He just hasn’t looked himself so far. It’s been quite puzzling, but I am confident Thorne will regain his 2021 form (even if he had some minor inconsistency issues last year as well) before too long.

As for the pass protection, the Spartans have only allowed two sacks so far on the season. Thorne also took a big shot against Akron on a flea-flicker play in which he got rid of the ball, but threw an interception and had to briefly leave the game after the hit. Overall, the offensive line has held up fairly well so far (for the most part), but Michigan State has only faced two Mid-American Conference opponents at this point: Western Michigan and Akron. While WMU is a solid MAC program, Akron is considered to be one of the worst teams in FBS (the Spartans defeated the Zips by a final score of 52-0). So it is hard to really judge where the pass protection stands. The offensive line was one of the bigger question marks for the Spartans entering the 2022 season, and this week against Washington will be MSU’s first true test.

Michigan State has primarily used a seven-man rotation on its offensive line so far this season: Jarrett Horst, Spencer Brown and Brandon Baldwin at the tackle spots, and Nick Samac, J.D. Duplain, Matt Carrick and Brian Greene (Washington State transfer) in the interior. Baldwin started the opener against Western Michigan at left tackle, while Horst started there against Akron and for many games in 2021. Samac has held down the center spot, while Duplain plays left guard, and Carrick and Grenne have rotated in at right guard (although Greene has also played other spots along the line). Baldwin has also played right tackle.

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UWDP: Wide Receiver Jalen Nailor is gone to the NFL, but junior Jayden Reed was the leading receiver for the Spartans last season. Tell us about some of MSU’s big, physical wide receivers. Will former Husky commit Germie Bernard factor in the gameplan?

Ryan: Jayden Reed is the leader of the wide receiver room, and he has a special connection with Thorne — I am not sure if this joke has made its way to the state of Washington yet, but did you know Reed and Thorne played middle school and high school football together?? (this is brought up all the time by fans and media). Reed had a dominant 2021 season, earning several accolades, after posting over 1,000 receiving yards and 10 touchdowns, as well as returning two punts for touchdowns. However, he’s off to a slower start in 2022 with eight catches for 107 yards and zero touchdowns. He missed some time during fall camp and was in and out of the lineup versus both Western Michigan and Akron.

Reed’s status for the game against Washington is actually up in the air. Reed reportedly ran into the bench on the sideline during the Akron game and didn’t return. It may have just been a precautionary thing in a game Michigan State dominated, but head coach Mel Tucker doesn’t like to divulge much about injuries to the public, saying Reed is “sore” and that “he’ll be ready when he’s ready.” We’ll see on Saturday. The good news for MSU is that wide receiver is one of the deepest positions on the team, so if Reed can’t play, there are still plenty of other options.

Syndication: Lansing State Journal
Big time WR Jayden Reed is a maybe for Saturday, according to coach Mel Tucker.

As for Germie Bernard, yes expect to see him — especially if Reed is out. If Reed plays, then Bernard likely won’t play a ton, but will still get some reps. His first collegiate catch went 41 yards for a score in which Bernard did most of the damage after the catch on a short hitch route. It sounds like Washington head coach Kalen DeBoer has no hard feelings for Bernard’s decision to leave the program essentially as soon as he arrived, and it is understandable that he chose that route after his wide receivers coach, Junior Adams, left for Oregon.

Keon Coleman is a matchup nightmare for most defenses. At 6-foot-4, 215 pounds, with elite speed, he can out-jump and out-athlete most defensive backs he goes up against. He also plays on the MSU basketball team. Coleman was quiet against Akron with just two catches, but he led MSU in the opener with four catches for 81 yards, including a 41-yard touchdown.

Tre Mosely is the other wide receiver to watch out for. He is an experienced, reliable target that usually catches everything thrown his way. Mosley only has four catches so far this season, but two of those were touchdowns.

Christian Fitpatrick, another 6-foot-4 wide receiver could get some playing time as well. Meanwhile, Daniel Barker, Maliq Carr and Tyler Hunt make a formidable trio at the tight end position as well.

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UWDP: MSU has turned to a pair of transfer portal running backs to replace Kenneth Walker. Jarek Broussard is familiar to Pac-12 fans from his days with Colorado. How are Broussard and Wisconsin transfer Jalen Berger utilized in the offense? How has the offensive line performed so far in the running game?

Ryan: One of the biggest concerns regarding Michigan State’s 2022 season was how the Spartans would replace the production of Kenneth Walker III. Through two games, that question does not seem to be looming as largely anymore. Nobody is Walker — he was perhaps the most talented college football player I’ve ever seen live — and neither Jalen Berger nor Jarek Broussard could achieve what Walker did on an individual basis. However, as a tandem, they’ve looked really strong and could match or exceed Walker’s production combined. The running game looks like it will continue to be something the Spartans can lean on.

So far, Berger has drawn both starts and gotten slightly more carries (33), but Broussard is right behind him (25 carries) and the two running backs rotate in and out with each other. Berger has recorded back-to-back 100-plus yard outings and leads MSU with 227 rushing yards, 6.9 yards per carry and four touchdowns. Meanwhile, Broussard has recorded 135 rushing yards (5.4 yards per carry) and two scores. Both players scored multiple touchdowns against Akron.

Akron v Michigan State
Husky fans will remember RB Jarek Broussard from his days at Colorado.

Following the win over Akron, Broussard said that the two tailbacks “complement each other really well” and that there is “no drop off” when one replaces the other.

Overall, Michigan State has run the ball 80 times compared to 57 passing attempts. The team is averaging 228.5 rushing yards per game, which currently ranks in the top-25 in the nation, but it’s early and the competition has been weak. The offensive linemen have done their job in the running game to open up lanes for Berger and Broussard, but there are still areas for improvement and the line itself is still a work in progress. According to Pro Football Focus, Horst has been MSU’s best run-blocker with a grade of 87.5, while Duplain has also been impressive in the ground game with a grade of 80.4. The blocking hasn’t been spectacular overall, but it has been serviceable. Saturday’s game will show where MSU’s offensive line actually stands at this point in the season.

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UWDP: Much like the Washington Huskies, Michigan State has dominated a decent Mid-American conference team and destroyed a relatively weak team. Can you get a read on the defense from these two games? Any particular strengths to speak of? Vulnerabilities? Who are some players on that side of the ball to watch on Saturday?

Ryan: The defense has looked improved through two games in 2022 compared to the 2021 team. Its greatest strength is getting after the quarterback — MSU currently leads the nation in sacks with 12 and that is likely due to pass-rushing specialist coach Brandon Jordan who was hired in the offseason. UNLV transfer defensive end/linebacker Jacoby Windmon has been an absolute menace off of the edge. He leads all FBS players with 5.5 sacks and has won back-to-back Big Ten Defensive Player of the Week honors. He has been recognized at the national level by Walter Camp as well.

Michigan State has also been strong at forcing fumbles, as the Spartans have forced seven fumbles and recovered six. Windmon has forced four of those. While Michigan State is currently missing safety and team leader Xavier Henderson, Kendell Brooks has been filling in nicely for Henderson and has two forced fumbles of his own. Henderson’s status for Saturday is unknown, but I would be surprised to see him after he was on crutches and sporting a brace on his leg during the Western Michigan game. MSU will also be without linebacker Darius Snow, who suffered a season-ending injury against WMU.

Overall, Michigan State is allowing just 279.5 yards per game total (198 passing yards passing and 81.5 rushing yards per game). But the numbers are perhaps a bit misleading, not only because of the lower level of competition, but also because Western Michigan and Akron were able to drive the ball down the field on the Spartans at times. MSU often bailed itself out by forcing turnovers, but before Akron quarterback DJ Irons got hurt, the Zips were moving the ball effortlessly early (but never scored). In 2021, MSU allowed the most passing yards per game in the country (nearly 325 yards per game). Penix has also torn up the Spartans in the past, and MSU is yet to see an offense like Washington’s in 2022. So I would still call the passing a defense a vulnerability until proven otherwise. But the team has been very stout against the run, as has been traditional for the Spartans dating back to the Mark Dantiono days.

Other players to watch out for on defense include linebackers Cal Haladay and Ben VanSumeren, cornerbacks Ameer Speed and Charles Brantley, nickel back Chester Kimbrough, and defensive end Khris Bogle (Florida transfer), among others.

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UWDP: Head Coach Mel Tucker led MSU to an 11-2 record in his first full season. How was he able to turn things around so quickly after going just 2-5 in the abbreviated 2020? The fanbase must be fully behind Tucker at this point.

Ryan: First and foremost, it’s the culture that Mel Tucker has instilled in the program — one of accountability, hard work and family. He uses phrases like “Keep Chopping” and “Relentless” as mantras for the program. He is also big into neutral thinking and “being where your feet are” — never get too high or too low, take it one play at a time. The players have fully bought into this, and if somebody isn’t about the team first, they won’t be in East Lansing for long.

Secondly, Tucker, Saeed Khalif (general manager/executive director of player personnel and recruiting) and the rest of the staff have mastered the transfer portal. When Tucker arrived in 2020, not only was the entire offseason wiped out due to COVID-19, but the roster was also devoid of talent. So Tucker and company used the portal to their advantage to bring in guys like Walker, Horst, VanSumeren, Brooks and others in 2021, and then did it again in 2022 with Berger, Broussard, Barker, Greene, Windmon, Bogle, Speed, etc. — all guys who have since made an impact.

Tucker has also made an impact at the high school recruiting level and has expanded Michigan State’s brand into a national level. The Spartans’ 2023 class currently rank No. 21 in the nation, according to 247Sports. There are a thousand other little things he’s done to help MSU make such a quick turnaround, but Tucker isn’t satisfied yet. In fact, he felt like last year wasn’t good enough.

As for the fans, yes the fan base is all in on Tucker. You might hear quite a few “Tuck Comin’” chants on Saturday. Thanks to his work ethic, the culture he has laid within the program and the quick results, it didn’t take much time for him at all to become a fan favorite.

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UWDP: What is your prediction for Saturday’s game?

Ryan: This is going to be a tough, hard-fought game. I think Washington is a much-improved team compared to last year and having to travel to the Pacific Northwest and play in front of a raucous crowd at Husky Stadium is daunting for Michigan State. I think it will be close throughout. However, I think MSU is the more talented team overall and Washington still has more to figure out with a new coaching staff, scheme and quarterback.

Michigan State 31, Washington 28

PS: I visited Seattle in May and it was certainly one of my favorite places that I have ever traveled to. I wish I was able to make the return trip for this game.

UWDP: Thanks Ryan for those in depth answers.

To see our answers to Ryan’s questions, click here.

For more on MSU, be sure to check out The Only Colors.

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