Michigan State’s season has been a surprising one through the first six games, but not in a good way.
The Spartans are 2-4 for the first time since 1994, having lost four in a row for the first time in 10 years, and are winless in their three Big Ten games so far. Last season they won the Big Ten championship and played in the College Football Playoff but now they are looking to end their dubious streaks Saturday night (7:30 p.m. ET kickoff) at Maryland.
The season hasn’t been all bad, despite the current record. There have been spectacular plays by freshmen that bode well for the future and some grit from upperclassmen that show you they have not given up on this season.
Here are six plays that have helped define the first six games of this season:
Donnie Corley steals a TD
No one has ever denied Donnie Corley’s athleticism. Notre Dame defensive back Cole Luke definitely won’t.
Luke thought he had a sure-fire interception in the end zone, a pick that would preserve Notre Dame’s 7-0 lead on Michigan State in the second quarter of their game in South Bend on Sept. 17. He thought wrong.
Corley came from behind Luke and stole the ball away on the throw by fifth-year senior Tyler O’Connor for a 38-yard touchdown reception that was the start of a 36-0 run for the Spartans en route to a 36-28 win. O’Connor’s throw came one play after Michigan State’s special teams recovered a loose ball that had bounced off a Notre Dame player during a punt. O’Connor’s throw was a little short but was close enough to allow Corley to go up and make a play on the ball. Did he ever.
— NBCSN (@NBCSN) September 18, 2016
Raequan Williams sacks DeShone Kizer
While Corley’s catch started the offensive surge at Notre Dame, it was redshirt freshman Raequan Williams who came up with the defensive play of the game with his 5-yard sack of Irish quarterback DeShone Kizer with 3:37 left in regulation. Notre Dame had scored 21 straight points to pull back within one possession of tying the game, but the Michigan State defense finally came up with the stop it needed on a third-and-2 play from the Notre Dame 37. Williams brought down the dangerous Kizer, who had thrown for two touchdowns and run for another in the comeback attempt.
Third downs have been a problem for Michigan State this season, but on this particular one, Williams beat his man and forced Notre Dame coach Brian Kelly to burn a timeout and punt the ball back to the Spartans. The offense converted two third downs of its own, including a 28-yard catch by Corley, to make sure Kizer never got the ball back.
Wisconsin takes it to the house
Michigan State trailed Wisconsin 13-6 at halftime on Sept. 24 but came out in the third quarter and forced the Badgers to punt on after a quick three-and-out series. The offense got the ball back in prime position at the 50-yard line and picked up seven yards on a first-down run by LJ Scott. Scott got the ball again on second down and had a first down when he attempted to spin out of tackle for more yardage.
Instead of more yardage, Scott found Wisconsin safety D’Cota Dixon there. Dixon’s hit jarred the ball free from Scott. It popped into the air and onto the ground, where Leo Musso picked it up and ran it back for a 66-yard touchdown that gave Wisconsin a two-touchdown lead. The Badgers went on to a 30-6 victory, capitalizing on four Michigan State turnovers plus another short field caused by a mishandled punt snap.
O’Connor-to-Shelton for six at Indiana
The Spartans traveled to Indiana on Oct. 1 and took the early lead on a perfectly thrown play-action pass from O’Connor to senior R.J. Shelton for an 86-yard touchdown. Shelton got behind the secondary and caught the pass in stride downfield. He then outraced the Indiana defenders chasing him, diving for and getting to the right front corner pylon for the longest scoring play in his career.
It was Michigan State’s longest pass play since 2013, when Connor Cook and Bennie Fowler connected on an 87-yard touchdown against Northwestern. Michigan State would end up losing the game in overtime but the pass play showed the Spartans offense does have the capability of being more than just a grind-it-out rushing attack.
Michigan State honors Mike Sadler and Mylan Hicks
This year has been a tragic one for the Michigan State community because two former players have passed away. Mike Sadler and Mylan Hicks lost their lives in separate incidents.
Sadler, an All-America punter with the Spartans from 2011-14, was killed in an auto accident that also took the life of Nebraska punter Sam Foltz in July. Hicks was a teammate of Sadler and was a member of the Calgary Stampeders (CFL) practice squad when he was shot to death on Sept. 25 outside of a Calgary nightclub.
Michigan State placed the No. 3 of Sadler and the No. 6 of Hicks in the middle of the Spartan head logo at midfield of Spartan Stadium during games against Wisconsin on Sept. 24 (Sadler) and Brigham Young on Oct. 8 (Hicks) as a tribute to the players and their families. BYU also honored the players by placing roses at the 3- and 6-yard lines before its game against Michigan State.
— Spartan Football (@MSU_Football) October 8, 2016
Solomon Vault’s 95-yard kickoff return turns away Michigan State Homecoming rally
A Homecoming crowd of more than 75,000 at Spartan Stadium was ready for a wild final 17 minutes after Michigan State had rallied from a 16-point deficit to trail Northwestern 33-31 with 2:08 left in the third quarter last Saturday.
O’Connor didn’t start the game but relieved redshirt freshman Brian Lewerke shortly after halftime and had thrown a pair of long touchdown passes to Shelton, one for 59 yards and then their second 86-yard score of the season.
All of the momentum was on Sparty’s side but Northwestern regained control of the game when Solomon Vault returned a kickoff 95 yards for a touchdown to push the Wildcats’ lead back to nine points. It was a deflating moment, much like Musso’s fumble return in the Wisconsin game. The Spartans would score another touchdown and field goal but Vault’s touchdown gave Northwestern the energy it needed to finish off a 54-40 victory.
Kevin Goheen covers Michigan State for Landof10.com. Follow him on Twitter at @CincyGoGo