EAST LANSING – Nothing came as easy as it did a year ago for Michigan State football.
The run game without Kenneth Walker III looked pedestrian until the end.
Payton Thorne and the passing offense sputtered back and forth from struggling to sterling multiple times.
Injuries came early, often and to key players.
Yet the 14th-ranked Spartans managed to build momentum at times through the air, then found a more consistent rhythm in the run and pass game late to pull away from Western Michigan for a 35-13 victory Friday night at Spartan Stadium.
“We talked about before we even came into the game, about not flinching,” third-year MSU coach Mel Tucker said. “There’s gonna be momentum swings in the game no matter who you play. And how do you get the momentum back? You get the momentum back by executing one play at a time and just stacking plays. And that’s how you keep the momentum. What I liked was that I didn’t see frustration to the point where we couldn’t function.”
MSU hosts Akron at 4 pm on Sept. 10 (BTN).
Thorne finished 12-for-24 for 233 yards with four touchdowns to four different receivers as MSU outgained the Broncos, 430-334. Jalen Berger’s late surge gave him 120 yards on 16 carries, while Jarek Broussard added 54 yards on 10 attempts. Keon Coleman had a team-high four catches for 84 yards.
However, the junior quarterback, in his second year as the starter, emerged from the opener with a sour taste of his own performance.
“I was very disappointed with the first half,” Thorne said. “We scored 21 points and we had three nice plays, but I give all the credit to (WMU’s) defense and what they did. They did a lot of things that we really hadn’t seen on film, or maybe we saw it only , like, one time on film all of last year. They brought it all out against us and they played hard, they didn’t ever give up. And so they did some good things and were able to you know put us in some interesting situations.
“But if you ask how I played, I mean I was pretty disappointed with how I played. But again, there’s a lot of factors into that. But there’s definitely a ton of room to improve.”
Thorne missed throws deep and long a few times early, appearing to have some rusty timing. The first two Spartan possessions went three-and-out. However, he got a big help when freshman Germie Bernard leaped for a high, wide pass on a short slant and took off for a 44-yard touchdown on MSU’s third drive of the game to make it 7-3 with 4:37 left in the first quarter.
The touchdown sparked Thorne, who completed four straight passes on the next two drives. That included a 13-yard fade to Daniel Barker for a touchdown, with the transfer tight end (Illinois) making a one-handed grab in the corner of the end zone on the first play of the second quarter.
After MSU’s defense forced a three-and-out, it took two plays for Thorne to strike again. His 41-yard deep ball to Keon Coleman made it 21-3 with 12:26 left in the second period.
“For me, I’m looking at these guys, and they’re responding to adversity,” Tucker said. “You have to be able to do that. It’s not always gonna be exactly what you want, and you can’t let your frustration get in the way of executing the next play. So I thought coming out in Game 1 at home and seeing we are able to do that, I was encouraged by that.”
The Spartans’ defense also shook off a sluggish start and began harassing WMU quarterback Jack Salopek, particularly transfer Jacoby Windmon coming off the edge while starting at defensive end. His quick-turn duck-and-burst forced Salopek to step up, and Windmon knocked the ball free for a fumble midway through the second quarter.
But MSU lost safety Xavier Henderson in the period, and the senior returned after halftime on crutches and wearing a brace on his right leg. Then on another Spartan fumble recovery, forced by his replacement, Kendell Brooks, and recovered by defensive tackle Simeon Barrow, another significant injury came. Linebacker Darius Snow got rolled into; he suffered an apparent right leg injury and did not return.
Tucker said he did not have an immediate update on the injuries to Henderson and Snow.
“We don’t know with X or Snow what happened exactly. But we have the guys come in, and we’re going to have to count on them as the games go on,” said linebacker Cal Haladay, one of four Spartans with 10 or more tackles. “We know when injuries happen and stuff like that happens, you just have to have everybody ready to play.”
Thorne made a few suspect decisions after that, starting with an interception on the following drive on a rollout. He missed tight end Maliq Carr open and appeared to have room to run for a first down himself, but instead Thorne threw across his body and was picked off in the middle of the field by WMU’s Keni-H Lovely late in the half.
In the third quarter, the offense’s erratic play continued. Thorne had an interception wiped out with a pass interference penalty on the Broncos, then Burger fumbled on the next play — a controversial replay decision, as an in-stadium view showed the running back’s knee was down well before the play.
The Broncos responded with a touchdown drive, with Sean Tyler dashing 45 yards deep into MSU territory and scoring on the next play with a 40yard touchdown run to make it 21-10 with 8:20 left.
Thorne appeared to make another nearly catastrophic decision, rolling left and waving off a wide-open running back Jarek Broussard and opting to run it himself. He tried to slide, but WMU’s Dalton Bussell hit him late and drew a 15-yard penalty. Thorne had to be helped off, but he returned one play later. Freshman Jack Stone missed a 44-yard field goal trying to end the drive.
“There was definitely some times in the game where we really didn’t have anything going on and we needed to get things rolling,” Thorne said. “And we weren’t.”
WMU scored again on a 42-yard field goal by kicker Palmer Domschke with 49 seconds left in the third quarter.
But MSU got some momentum late, with Berger ripping off a 50-yard run to set up his own 1-yard score on fourth-and-goal with 6:28 to play. And Thorne tacked on another touchdown — a 43-yard, one-play scoring drive to Tre Mosley, to put the game on ice.
Despite the inconsistencies, the Spartans displayed balance on offense, getting 197 yards on the ground and 233 through the air. And the offensive line yielded just one sack.
“We still need to get better,” Tucker said, “but we have weapons.”
Windmon had seven tackles, including four of MSU’s seven sacks. The Spartans also held Salopek to 21-for-36 passing for 193 yards in his starting debut. The Broncos got 68 rushing yards on 13 attempts from Tyler.
Contact Chris Solari:firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @chrissolari.
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