Saturday, Spartan Stadium will have fans in attendance for the first time since 2019. The home team rolls back to East Lansing with a 1-0 record, looking to take advantage of an inferior FCS opponent. Many will be eager to see new-comer Kenneth Walker lll in person when Michigan State faces off against Youngstown State. However, there are some other names to keep track of with a road date against Miami looming. The coaching staff or players won’t admit it openly, but this game will serve as a dress rehearsal for the Spartans toughest non-conference game in quite some time. Not only will more players get playing time on Saturday, but players who performed well in the win against Northwestern, will have to prove their initial success was not a fluke.
Heyward loves playing in home openers against non-conference opponents. Back in 2018 against Utah State, he tallied 42 rushing yards on just 5 carries, with two of them resulting in touchdowns. 2019 was a rough year for Connor, but he did propel Michigan State to an opening day win over Tulsa. Three receptions for 28 yards and a score was his best stat line of the season. The redshirt senior running back is one of the longest-tenured players on the roster and should steady the Spartans to an easy win over the Penguins.
The 22-year-old seems to be a good fit in the H-back role the offensive coaching staff has given him. Heyward lacks the explosiveness a work-horse back requires, which has led him to become mainly a pass-catcher out of the back field. In fact, he didn’t log a single carry in the win at Northwestern. There is a good chance Kenneth Walker lll won’t get the workload he received last week, so look for that stat to change this weekend. None the less, Connor Heyward should be on the scouting report for Youngstown State, and on MSU fans list of candidates to have a breakout performance.
Just like the team as a whole, Michigan State has experienced a lot of turnover at the linebacker position. The defense lost their leader in Antjuan Simmons and multiple other backers from 2020. Enter Quavaris Crouch. The junior transfer comes from Tennessee after two productive seasons. The four-star high school recruit totaled 85 tackles and 3 sacks in just 23 games with the Volunteers. That production continued in the Spartans win in Evanston, Illinois last Friday. Crouch was all over the field, as any linebacker should, and racked up 7 tackles and a sack.
Michigan State linebackers will have their hands full on Saturday, as Youngstown State loves to run the football. Crouch, along with Chase Kline and Cal Haladay, will look to limit the Penguin’s two-headed monster in Jaleel McLaughlin and Demeatric Crenshaw. The two combined for 49 rushes, 323 yards, and 4 touchdowns in their season-opening win against Incarnate Word. Look for Quavaris Crouch to be a key in stopping the rushing attack and hopefully giving MSU their first takeaway of the 2021 season.
If the Spartans pull away early from Youngstown State, don’t be surprised to see quarterback Anthony Russo. Russo was in a quarterback competition, with eventual starter Payton Thorne, during all of the preseason. Thorne played steady in the Big Ten opener. He didn’t do too much, nor did the offensive coaching staff call on him to make many big plays. However, to say that he solidified the starting job for the rest of the season would be an overreaction. One bad game and the redshirt sophomore could be pulled for the veteran, Russo.
That is why Mel Tucker may give both his quarterbacks a look on Saturday. Michigan State didn’t go out and pluck Russo from the transfer portal for nothing. The graduate transfer is a big body with a big arm that would love to throw some bombs to deep ball threats like Jalen Nailor or Jayden Reed if given the chance. MSU fans shouldn’t have a problem with seeing what they have in Anthony Russo if they find themselves with a big lead at some point.
Follow Alex Mayer on Twitter; @almay_99