Michigan State football overcomes myriad of illnesses, injuries to win home finale

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EAST LANSING — Payton Thorne looked to his left and smiled at Kenneth Walker III.

Michigan State football’s Heisman Trophy candidate just ploughed through Penn State’s defense for 138 yards, tying his career high with 30 carries and absorbing one hit after another.

All while playing sick.

“This guy right here sucked it up pretty good,” Thorne said of Walker, who also scored in the 13th-ranked Spartans’ 30-27 win over Penn State. “He was hurting yesterday, and I'm sure he's still not feeling great.”

Walker sure didn’t look like it diving across the field after the final horn, flailing around Spartan Stadium making snow angels in his first game of his life in such significant accumulation. However, the junior running back was playing on a bad left ankle as well and managed to adjust how he ran with the weather on top of gutting out the illness.

Michigan State Spartans wide receiver Jayden Reed makes a catch against Penn State Nittany Lions cornerback Joey Porter Jr. during the first quarter at Spartan Stadium, Nov. 27, 2021.
Michigan State Spartans wide receiver Jayden Reed makes a catch against Penn State Nittany Lions cornerback Joey Porter Jr. during the first quarter at Spartan Stadium, Nov. 27, 2021.

“I don't think I was gonna sit out at all,” said Walker, who entered Saturday as the nation’s No. 2 rusher. “I had my mind made up I was playing either way.”

A report late Friday cited anonymous sources that the Spartans were dealing with a "flu bug" and possibly were looking at playing without up to 20 players and potentially six to eight starters.

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The only significant player who sat out Saturday who had not been dealing with injuries before was tight end Tyler Hunt. However, Thorne and coach Mel Tucker confirmed MSU did get hit with a team-wide sickness late in the week.

“We had a lot of guys,” Thorne said. “I know Kevin Jarvis wasn't feeling great, Jacub Panasiuk wasn't feeling good. There was a lot of guys who had the flu during the week or just maybe didn't have the flu and were feeling really not good. We had IVs in here a couple of days ago and all types of stuff.

“It was really a group effort in getting guys ready to go, and guys doing their part, taking all the medicine they needed to. Just battling through the adversity this week threw at us was a great job.”

Along with Hunt, MSU remained without receiver Jalen Nailor (right hand), defensive tackle Simeon Barrow (undisclosed), left tackle Jarrett Horst (undisclosed medical) and cornerback Chuck Brantley (shoulder). Linebacker Quavaris Crouch, who played some in the first half at Ohio State before sitting out the second half, was not in uniform. Cornerback Marqui Lowery, who did some early warmups to try and stretch out a nagging left leg injury that has bothered him all season, but did not return in uniform.

Wide receiver Jayden Reed (right foot) and safety Xavier Henderson (shoulder), who missed the second half of last week’s 56-7 loss at Ohio State, both played against PSU. Reed had six catches for 89 yards, including a touchdown and an onside kick recovery in the fourth quarter. Henderson made five tackles.

Reed said he wasn't 100% and did not practice until Friday after leaving Ohio Stadium with his foot in a walking boot.

"I just had to be mentally tough. I really wanted this win," he said. "Sometimes you got to be uncomfortable to receive what you want. So that's what I had to do, and I made a sacrifice for my team."

Michigan State's Kenneth Walker III rushes for a touchdown against Penn State's Jaquan Brisker during the first quarter on Saturday, Nov. 27, 2021, in East Lansing.
Michigan State's Kenneth Walker III rushes for a touchdown against Penn State's Jaquan Brisker during the first quarter on Saturday, Nov. 27, 2021, in East Lansing.

Walker, who got just six carries last week and only one after halftime before going to the bench, looked just fine in the snow. He now has 1,636 yards on 266 carries with 18 rushing touchdowns this season.

“We had to shuffle some lineups during the week and (make) contingency plans, and we were not exactly sure who was gonna be able to answer the bell,” Tucker said. “But we knew that the guys that could play, we knew that they would play if they could. And we knew that we would get everything that they had in them. It's been a next-man-up mentality for the last three or four weeks.”

Contact Chris Solari: csolari@freepress.com. Follow him on Twitter @chrissolari. Read more on the Michigan State Spartans and sign up for our Spartans newsletter.

This article originally appeared on Detroit Free Press: Michigan State football's latest obstacle hurdled: Sickness

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