No. 11 Michigan State rides quick-strike offense to 31-13 win against Rutgers
PISCATAWAY, N.J. — Michigan State didn’t win a beauty contest, but by the time it left Rutgers on Saturday afternoon, the Spartans were still unbeaten halfway through the regular season.
It was a sloppy game overall, but No. 11 Michigan State rode a handful of big plays to knock off Rutgers, 31-13, in front of 41,117 at SHI Stadium to become bowl eligible, something that seemed like a major goal before the season but now feels like an afterthought for a team that is tied atop the Big Ten East.
Jalen Nailor was the star early and Kenneth Walker III played the role of closer. Nailor had a career-high 221 yards receiving and scored three touchdowns in the first half — a pair of 63-yarders and a 65-yard grab on a flea flicker. Walker then got rolling in the second half, breaking things open with a 94-yard touchdown run in the third quarter, finishing with 233 yards on 29 carries.
Quarterback Payton Thorne was also on his game, going 16 for 27 for a career-high 339 yards and three touchdowns with an interception as Michigan State (6-0, 3-0 Big Ten) piled up 593 total yards.
Rutgers (3-4, 0-3) was in it for most of the first half, but failed to find the end zone on a pair of red-zone trips after taking an early 7-0 lead.
Quarterback Noah Vedral was 16 for 31 for 208 yards, but the Scarlet Knights could get nothing going in the second half as the Spartans tightened defensively, pulling away despite nine penalties and two turnovers. Shameen Jones had eight receptions for 108 yards for the Scarlet Knights.
The first half was a wild one, thanks to Michigan State’s big offensive plays and Michigan State’s penchant for hurting itself.
Nailor obviously cashed in big, his first touchdown catch pulling Michigan State even at 7 after Aron Cruicckshank put Rutgers ahead following the Spartans’ botched fake field-goal attempt. Later, it was back-to-back personal fouls on Jacub Panasiuk and Jacob Slade that kept a Rutgers drive going with the Scarlet Knights pulling ahead, 10-7, on a 26-yard field goal from Valentino Ambrosio.
Nailor struck again five plays later with his second touchdown catch to put the Spartans ahead, 14-10, but a fumble late in the second quarter on a bad snap led to another Rutgers field goal when Thorne couldn’t grab the ball and offensive lineman Luke Campbell fumbled when he tried to run with the ball.
Michigan State used its latest flea-flicker call on its next play from scrimmage as Nailor caught a pass over his shoulder from Thorne, stopped on a dime near the sideline and outran the Rutgers' defense to the end zone for his third touchdown, putting MSU up 21-13 with 6:10 left in the half.
The Spartans had another chance to score late in the half but mismanaged the clock in the closing seconds with a timeout in their pocket. They managed to get a 35-yard field-goal attempt from Matt Coghlin, but after Rutgers coach Greg Schiano called a pair of timeouts, Coghlin pulled his kick wide left as time ran out.
The second half started slowly, but it came to life on Michigan State’s third possession when Walker burst through the line and raced 94 yards for a touchdown to give the Spartans a 28-13 lead with 7:13 left in the third quarter. It was the longest running play in MSU history, as well as the longest play from scrimmage and it helped the Spartans start to take control of the game.
Michigan State’s defense played better in the second half, getting a fourth-down stop deep in its own end and forcing a fourth-quarter turnover when Simeon Barrow hit Vedral, forcing a fumble that was recovered by Slade.
The Spartans turned that turnover into three points on Coghlin’s 35-yard field goal with 2:07 left in the game. It was Coghlin’s 72nd career field goal, a Michigan State program record.