Biggest Questions Following Week One
Oh what a night it was! The Friday night opener for MSU in Evanston was one of the most highly anticipated games in recent memory as fans were anxious to see how this team of misfit toys thrown together via the transfer portal by Mel Tucker in his 2nd season would fare. On top of that, we opened on a Friday night, under the lights, against a Big Ten conference opponent. The result? MSU took a 21-0 lead early in the 2nd quarter and never looked back en route to a 38-21 victory.
The quarterback competition was finally settled, with Payton Thorne taking every snap and playing good, conservative football throughout the game. The potential impact of incoming RB Kenneth Walker was answered emphatically with a 23-264-4 stat line. The starting CB battle was determined with Kalon Gervin and Ronald Williams holding their spots throughout the evening.
All that said, there are still some lingering questions that remain following MSU's impressive performance that will help determine how good this team can be in 2021. Let's get to them:
Can we sustain a top-five rushing attack?
As I'm sure you know by now, Kenneth Walker III ran for 264 yards on Friday night, a rushing total that was the 7th most in a single game in program history, the most ever in a season opener, and the 1st 200 yard rushing game since Le'Veon Bell against Minnesota in 2012. On top of that, as a team MSU ran for 8.8 yards per carry, the highest mark for the team in a single game since 2007 against Northwestern, and ran for over 300 yards total for the first time since 2014 against Indiana. Are those totals going to sustain? Of course not, it's a long season with a lot of great rushing defenses ahead. But, can we remain in the top-5 in yards per game in the Big Ten? Maybe. The improved offensive line under the direction of OL Coach Chris Kapilovic, and the impact of newcomer Jarrett Horst can't be overstated here. The group continued setting the tone at the line of scrimmage all night, led by Horst consistently burying the man in front of him. If this group can maintain a high level, and Kenneth Walker continues to show what he flashed in week 1, the outlook of the 2021 season could change dramatically.
Can we prevent big plays in the passing game?
While Northwestern QB Hunter Johnson certainly looked much improved as a passer from the last time we saw him in 2019, the Wildcats passing attack is not going to put up eye popping numbers this season. We discussed this game as an opportunity for this secondary to make a statement as a group that teams avoid testing with mainstay Kalon Gervin and newcomer Ronald Williams at CB on the outside and Xavier Henderson patrolling the box with Angelo Grose up high. Hunter Johnson finished with 283 yards and 3 TDs on 70% passing with multiple 40+ yard chunk plays. Ronald Williams hasn't played competitive football in a long time, and we'll see how he can recover from an unsteady performance on Friday night.
Can the pass-rush get home with four?
The Michigan State defense finished the game with 3 sacks, none of which came from the front 4. In spite of that fact, there is a lot of optimism coming out of week 1 with the way the defensive line was able to generate pressure through a combination of rotating fresh bodies (10 defensive linemen played double digit snaps, 14 played in total) and stunts. Beesley, Pietrowski, and Panasiuk all got hits on Johnson, showing that we got close, but if this defense is really going to take the next step we need to convert a couple of those pressures/hits into sacks. One of the biggest criticisms of this group all off-season has been "a lot of good, but no great", especially from a pass-rushing standpoint. I trust Ron Burton and Scottie Hazelton to generate some pressure via scheme, but can we find a guy or two who are able to win a one on one block and get to the QB before he gets the ball out of his hands? If we can, readjust your expectations for this defense.