EAST LANSING — Mel Tucker looked back at Michigan State football’s GPS numbers from Saturday, the ones that track player speed in practice and in games.
After crunching the numbers, he realized the Spartans played faster in the fourth quarter than the first quarter of their 38-17 win at Miami (Florida). Not coincidentally, MSU pulled away with a dominating 21-3 kick in the final period.
It was a major reason why Tucker said, after the impressive win that vaulted the Spartans to No. 21 in this week’s USA Today/AFCA Coaches Poll, his players were able to “drag (the Hurricanes) into the deep water where we live.”
“We were built to do that. And that’s part of the plan,” Tucker said Tuesday. “The deep water was pretty much just imagery to relate to the players, so they understand where they are, and where we’re comfortable being. That’s not always the case, and there’s nothing casual about what we’re doing. From the minute these guys walk in here to the minute they leave out of here, there’s a tremendous amount of work being done. And it has to be done a certain way. And it never stops, and there’s never any let-up.
“Like we tell the players, I tell the players, you can’t wear me down.”
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Preparing the Spartans’ bodies for temperatures that neared 100 degrees in the midday South Florida sun became an offeseason priority for Tucker, his strength and conditioning coaches, nutritionists and sports science experts. MSU also built its rotations on the offensive line, defensive line and in the secondary to keep players fresh, and Tucker had graduate and student assistants holding shade coverings over position groups on the sideline as they continually hydrated and took in oxygen throughout the game.
“It’s really always a team effort with all the things we do, with the science perspective to the nutrition perspective to the strength and conditioning perspective,” offensive coordinator Jay Johnson said Wednesday. “We felt good about our guys, they were good and still had still fuel left and really performed well at the end.”
MSU outrushed the Hurricanes 43-3 in the last period, averaging 7.4 yards per play while getting touchdown passes from Payton Thorne to Jayden Reed and Jalen Nailor to secure the win — and a late end-around run from Reed for an exclamation point on the conditioning efforts.
“It was a pretty good feeling to be able to put them away and get the victory,” center Matt Allen said Wednesday.
Players and coaches all praised nutritionist Amber Rinestine, strength and conditioning coach Jay Novak and director of football sport science Bill Burghardt for creating the blueprint to allow them to perform at peak level late in the game. Tucker wants that type of late-game stamina to carry into Big Ten play, which resumes Saturday at home against Nebraska (7 p.m./FS1).
“We want to make sure that we’re prepared and we’re ready for whatever,” Tucker said. “Momentum swings in the game, adversity — whatever it is, we want to keep chopping, keep playing, be resilient and trust our training and know that we can go into the third quarter, fourth quarter and actually get stronger.”
On Tuesday, Payton Thorne took home MSU’s second Big Ten offensive player of the week honor this season, sharing it with Ohio State freshman running back TreVeyon Henderson.
The MSU sophomore threw four touchdown passes for the second straight week, joining Connor Cook as the only two Spartan quarterbacks with back-to-back four-TD performances in school history. (Cook did it in 2015 against Indiana and Nebraska.)
On Saturday, Thorne went 18-for-31 for 261 yards, with three scoring passes coming in the second half to help MSU pull away. However, he shrugged off the award to praise his teammates — including Walker, who won the top offensive honors following MSU’s Week 1 win at Northwestern.
“The offensive line is playing well, obviously our running back is a stud and all our running backs are playing well, and then our receivers are making plays,” said Thorne, who now has nine TD tosses and no interceptions in three games this season. “Everyone else around me is playing well.”
Speaking of Walker, the junior transfer from Wake Forest leads the Football Bowl Subdivision with 493 rushing yards and a 164.3 yards-per-game average. Walker ran 27 times for 172 yards at Miami and added his first touchdown catch on a pass in the flat from Thorne in the first half.
Johnson said he didn’t expect that when MSU began courting Walker, but he began to realize what the Spartans were getting as he analyzed his first two years of game film with the Demon Deacons.
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“You saw that present itself on the Wake tape — boy, he’s explosive. And then since he’s been here since January, the way he goes about his business is fantastic,” Johnson said. “He’s probably one of the hardest working guys we have on the team. And even after Game 1, where he did a nice job from a production piece, but there was lots of parts of his game that he needs to improve on, you can see he’s constantly been challenging himself to do that.
“You put all that together, I’m not surprised.”
On top of his totals, Walker also ranks second nationally in yards per carry (8.65), third in total yards per game (170), ninth in rushing TDs (five) and seventh in all touchdowns (six).
“He’s definitely not human,” wide receiver Jayden Reed said of Walker.
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