Two wins in 2020. A consensus Vegas win total over/under of 4.5. More than forty new players between transfers and high school recruits, the latter of which included exactly one blue chip.
Welcome to the 2021 Off Tackle Empire Performance Reviews—now that the college football season is officially over*, it’s time to recap what exactly we made of the 2021 Big Ten football slate. Every day** we’ll have a team-by-team
postmortem retrospective performance review and look ahead to next season.
No particular order, but today, why not Michigan State? Thanks for making Off Tackle Empire one of your places to talk Big Ten football.
It’s not entirely true that there was no hope for Michigan State coming into 2021, but there certainly weren’t many people placing the team’s ceiling much higher than bowl eligibility. That felt like an achievable, acceptable goal - it would allow Tucker to prove his intended schemes on both sides of the ball were potable, give the staff those coveted bowl practices with a still-new roster, and ideally help them drum up some recruiting momentum.
Instead, the Spartans started the season 8-0, made a brief appearance in the top four of the College Football Playoff rankings, and filled their season with signature moments en route to winning their New Years’ Six appearance in the Peach Bowl.
Of the fourteen transfers Tucker brought in, eleven were at least major contributors, and former Wake Forest RB Kenneth Walker III instantly became the face of the program when he exploded onto the scene with a 23/264/4 line against Northwestern in the season opener.
The first indication this team was going to be vastly better than advertised was the road win at Miami, then still a ranked team with a stadium environment designed to wilt visiting teams in the South Florida sun all day. The Spartans were the better-conditioned team that day, and pulled away in the 4th quarter for a win that turned out to be the beginning of the end of Manny Diaz’s Miami tenure.
The next week was a very different kind of win, and a reminder that things were not going to be so easy. Nebraska’s defensive line put the Spartan offense in a lead-lined coffin for the entire second half, and Michigan State needed a late punt return touchdown from Jayden Reed to force overtime before escaping with the win. It transpired that this was just how 2021 Nebraska went about their business, but in context, it was the equivalent of rolling one’s vehicle into a ditch and crawling out without a scratch.
A few weeks later, MSU met also-undefeated Michigan in possibly the highest-profile clash in that series’ long and storied history. Walker authored what should have been a Heisman finalist-clinching performance, becoming the first player to ever rush for five touchdowns in a game against the Wolverines (they’ve been playing football for quite a while), and the Spartans again hoisted the Paul Bunyan.
The dream came to an abrupt end with two losses over the next three weeks, wherein MSU’s horrendous pass defense finally met two passing offenses in Purdue and Ohio State good enough to brutally exploit that weakness.
Knocked out of the conference race by the Buckeyes, MSU hosted Penn State to close the season with “only” bowl positioning on the line. I really hope people remember what a fun game this was, a back-and-forth affair in a snowstorm that the Spartans won in dramatic fashion with more late heroics from Reed. A better-than-expected crowd watched MSU’s players frolic and slide and make snow angels as a flatbed hauled the Land Grant Trophy into the Daugherty building (at least one assumes, as I don’t believe it made an on-field appearance, to my intense indignation and fury).
Michigan State drew Pitt in what should have been a star-studded Peach Bowl featuring Doak Walker and Walter Camp winner Walker, Heisman finalist Pitt QB Kenny Pickett, and Biletnikoff-winning Pitt WR Jordan Addison. As it turned out, the first two of those guys opted out, which probably dimmed the game’s appeal.
Neither offense did a great job adjusting for the loss of its star; Pitt’s new QB, Nick Patti, also got hurt scoring a rushing TD on their second drive, pulling 3rd stringer Davis Beville off the bench. Without Walker’s home run threat and fantastic tackle-breaking, Michigan State’s run game never really got moving, and Pitt’s defense teed off on an off-balance Payton Thorne for most of three quarters. MSU turned two deep drives in the second quarter into a missed field goal and a bad interception, and when Pitt smacked a scoop and score out of Thorne’s hand early in the third, it felt like the game was going to slip away.
But, as they consistently had all season, the Spartans found the big plays late. Thorne corrected his choppy footwork and steered two of the long, time-draining touchdown drives that MSU struggled to complete all year, leaning heavily on Jayden Reed and TE Connor Heyward. It still looked like the much-maligned pass defense was going to give the game right back to Pitt until LB Cal Haladay showed blitz, dropped into a zone instead, and picked off Beville for a sealing pick six.
Despite this season’s success, it will be a busy offseason in East Lansing. Mel Tucker will once again have a large group of newcomers to integrate as the new normal of a stampede to the portal from backups drains the depth away, but also opens spots for incoming transfers. If the bowl game was any indication, the run game needs serious retooling for life after Walker, and although Pitt didn’t really take advantage of it, MSU’s season-long disaster defending the pass has to be the top priority.
Overall, though, you can’t ask for much more in a second year of a coaching staff, especially given where this program was a year ago. Many of the same players who saw this program slide into mediocrity played central roles in breathing new life into it, and even though Spartan basketball is once again eminently watchable, the countdown to spring practice is in the back of the fanbase’s collective mind.