EAST LANSING – It was far from pretty. In fact, it looked more like an old-time Big Ten football game, back when the league actually had only 10 teams.
Michigan State Football once again used his developing running game and Payton Thorne’s big plays on Saturday to defeat Rutgers, 27-21, and pull in a bowl eligibility win.
Thorne played erratically at times but finished 19 for 35 for 256 yards and two touchdowns. Jalen Berger and Jarek Broussard combined for 165 of the Spartans’ 197 rushing yards, while MSU posted 455 total rushing yards.
The Spartans (5-5, 3-4 Big Ten) have won three of their last four games after a four-game losing streak.
“It’s a lot more fun when you win,” said Thorne, who also rushed for 33 yards on five carries and was not sacked. “Football isn’t that much fun when you lose, so it’s just fun to show up and play well. I remember last week we were sitting on the pitch, and I just watched a few guys and I said, ‘Man, that’s fun. We move the ball down the field, we complete the balls, we run different things and we run them.
“Winning is fun, performing is fun.”
Jayden Reed caught four passes for 90 yards and a score, and Daniel Barker added four catches for 64 yards and a touchdown. MSU got critical field goals from 35 and 48 yards from Ben Patton to provide bunting in the fourth quarter to make it a two-point game.
The Spartans also won back-to-back games for the first time since early weeks against Western Michigan and Akron, although they played Saturday and last week at No. 20 Illinois without eight players suspended for their role in a altercation in Michigan on October 29.
“I think we’ve been very resilient with everything that’s happened to us,” said defensive tackle Jacob Slade, who had a critical blocked field goal in the fourth quarter. “We had nothing left to lose, so I think we showed that in the last two games we played.”
Kyle Monangai became the seventh straight running back to run for more than 100 yards against the MSU defense. He finished with 162 yards on 24 carries for Rutgers (4-6, 1-6), who rushed for 224 yards against the Spartans’ depleted defensive line.
MSU needs a win next Saturday at home against Indiana or Nov. 26 at No. 15 Penn State to reach coach Mel Tucker’s second straight game.
“It’s important to finish strong and play our best football in November,” said Tucker, who improved to 5-3 on the month in his three seasons at MSU. “I think it’s a sign of high character and a good football team, to play your best over time. And so that’s what we aim to do.”
MSU and Rutgers both found traction in the running game, with the Spartans 1 yard down at halftime (111) to match their Big Ten best of 112 yards (set last week in Illinois) .
Berger and Broussard combined for 86 yards on 16 carries behind an offensive line missing starters Jarrett Horst and Matt Carrick and backup Geno VanDeMark. Add Thorne to that field mix as well, with the junior quarterback getting meaningfully involved with his legs for the first time since the opener against West Michigan.
“I would probably say today I was healthier than ever, which feels good,” Thorne said. “I feel like I can run well again. I’m probably not as fast as last summer, but I feel a lot better.”
He also fought off some inconsistencies with his passing delivery while putting a terrific touch on others, including a 25-yard feathery touchdown to Barker with 1:10 left in the first quarter to put MSU on the board first. . Thorne went 4-for-6 for 60 yards on that drive and finished the half 13-for-23 for 172 yards.
Bryce Baringer buried Rutgers at his 4-yard line early in the second quarter with a 64-yard punt while being hit in the leg as he kicked. But the Scarlet Knights only needed one play, a 31-yard flurry around Monangai’s left end, to escape the shadow of their own end zone. Monangai added a 21-yard run on the nine-play, 96-yard course, then quarterback Gavin Wimsatt hit fellow running back Aaron Young wide open for an 18-yard touchdown pass with 5:52 left before halftime.
The Spartans regained the lead with a long drive of their own, Broussard building momentum to get to midfield and Thorne hitting Reed for a 35-yard coaster catch to set up MSU at Rutgers’ 10. After the tight end Maliq Carr drew penalty pass interference in the end zone against Avery Young of the Scarlet Knights, Berger hammered in a 2-yard touchdown on the next play for a 14-7 halftime lead.
MSU had a 283-200 advantage in total yards, but Rutgers went for 138 yards before halftime.
“We were in touch, but we weren’t wrapping up, and they were doing a really good job running hard,” Tucker said. “We just need to do a better tackling job. And then it became a perimeter support game, so they got us on our edges a bit.”
Hooked up late
The Spartans conducted their most multifaceted assault outside the locker room. Berger and Thorne rushed for a combined 14 yards on the first two rushing plays of their first drive, with Thorne and Reed connecting for 25 yards on the next play. Berger hit two Rutgers defensemen for a 22-yard run, then Thorne and Reed hooked a deep pass again for a 25-yard touchdown at 10:34 of the third quarter.
“I just think as the season goes on it just builds chemistry,” said Reed, who has now had all five touchdowns in the last six games. “The running game is starting to build a bit more, which opens up a lot more for attack.”
That 21-7 lead didn’t last long. The Scarlet Knights fired in a score with 1:30 left in the period after Wimsatt hit Aron Cruickshank for 28 yards on third-and-10, then used a third-and-5 backhand to receiver to drive deep into MSU territory. . Johnny Langan’s 1-yard run made it 21-14.
After the Spartans went out three times, Monangai methodically worked his way down the field as Rutgers ticked the clock and approached the red zone before stalling at the MSU 21-yard line. But Slade blocked the ensuing field goal attempt, Ameer Speed recovering, then fumbling and Ben VanSumeren finally pounced on the ball.
That set up Patton’s first field goal, the third of the season for MSU, with 6:28 left. After the defense stopped Rutgers in his next practice, Patton connected from 48 yards with 3:22 left. The Spartans are 4 for 8 on field goal attempts.
Rutgers added a 31-yard touchdown on Wimsatt’s fourth down to Shameen Jones with 47 seconds left. Wimsatt went 20 of 34 for 236 yards and two touchdowns, but was sacked three times. MSU recovered the ensuing inbound kick to end the game.
“When you get 460 yards on offense, we get better,” Rutgers coach Greg Schiano said. “We have to keep pushing things in that direction. Our young quarterback definitely played his best game, which is exciting because that’s the position in this game.”
However, the Scarlet Knights also had 14 penalties for 108 yards, while the Spartans committed six for 50 yards.
“Every 100 penalty yards is like a touchdown,” Tucker said. “And then when they’re behind the sticks it’s obviously better for us.”
Linebacker Cal Haladay, the Big Ten defensive player of the week, finished with 19 tackles.
Contact Chris Solari:email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @chrissolari.
Learn more about the Michigan State Spartans and sign up for our Spartans newsletter.