Defense comes up large, as Michigan State football holds off Indiana, 20-15

BLOOMINGTON, Ind. — Mark Dantonio raved for years about Tyler Hunt’s athleticism, which seemed crazy when talking about a walk-on punter and kicker.

Mel Tucker saw something in him and moved Hunt to tight end by request in 2020. And the senior made the two biggest plays Saturday to help save Michigan State football’s unbeaten season.

With the offense sputtering against Indiana’s aggressive defense, Hunt took a reverse flip and threw a 15-yard pass under pressure to quarterback Payton Thorne, who made a dazzling toe-tap catch on the sideline. Then Thorne returned the favor with a 12-yard touchdown pass three plays later to help the No. 9 Spartans escape Indiana with a 20-15 victory Saturday at Memorial Stadium.

THE STORY: Mark Dantonio didn’t leave Michigan State barren. Mel Tucker proving it

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Indiana Hoosiers running back Stephen Carr (5) is tackled by multiple Michigan State Spartans during the second quarter Oct. 16, 2021 at Memorial Stadium.Indiana Hoosiers running back Stephen Carr (5) is tackled by multiple Michigan State Spartans during the second quarter Oct. 16, 2021 at Memorial Stadium.

Indiana Hoosiers running back Stephen Carr (5) is tackled by multiple Michigan State Spartans during the second quarter Oct. 16, 2021 at Memorial Stadium.

That means MSU (7-0, 4-0 Big Ten) goes into its bye week and awaits a visit from No. 7 Michigan on Oct. 30. Game time and TV information has not yet been released. The Wolverines, who did not play this week, host Northwestern next Saturday.

Xavier Henderson snuffed out a middle screen to Hoosiers tight end Peyton Hendershot on a two-point conversion attempt early in the fourth quarter, and Matt Coghlin added a 49-yard field goal for a bit of cushion with 8:31 to play, his second long one of the game.

And the Spartans held on against an Indiana team playing without starting quarterback Michael Penix Jr. and cornerback Tiawan Mullen, who were out with injuries. The Hoosiers (2-4, 0-3) had backup quarterback Jack Tuttle pressured all day despite controlling MSU on both sides of the line early.

And the Spartans also needed to overcome their own issues, which included struggles getting off the field on third down, penalties, special teams gaffs, turnovers and watching Walker get bottled up for 84 yards on 23 hard-hitting carries. Thorne finished 14 of 26 for 126 yards.

The big plays MSU made in the first half at Rutgers vanished, with Indiana dominating up front and not permitting Walker or Thorne to get on track. The Spartans instead looked more like the second-half frustrations in that game and the escape against Nebraska.

Walker had multiple sets of eyes on him on every one of his 10 carries, managing just 22 yards and none longer than 8. Meantime, Thorne’s receivers dropped a few passes – including what looked like could have been a long touchdown to Jayden Reed in the first quarter – and the Hoosiers kept the sophomore quarterback scrambling with pressure.

The Spartans also struggled special teams, with Bryce Baringer shanking one punt and having another partially deflected. MSU committed five penalties for 40 yards before halftime, almost as many as the 57 yards of offense it had in the opening half, and did not cross midfield on four possessions as Indiana held the ball for nearly 19 1/2 minutes.

If not for its defense, however, the Spartans might have been even farther behind.

Cal Haladay stepped in front of a Tuttle pass on a tight end slant for Peyton Hendershot, picked it off and outraced the Indiana quarterback for a 30-yard interception return that was MSU’s only touchdown of the half with 4:33 left in the first quarter. And the Spartans also snuffed out three potential game-changing drives by the Hoosiers, holding Indiana to three field goals after reaching MSU’s 6, 26 and 7 yard lines.

Indiana carried a 9-7 lead into halftime, but the Spartans reclaimed the lead on Coghlin’s 51-yard field goal that just cleared the crossbar on MSU’s first drive of the third quarter. More importantly, Thorne and the offense found some rhythm and ate 4 minutes and 4 seconds off the clock to take the 10-7.

And Coghlin’s 73rd career field goal set up his former specialist partner for some special heroics for the offense, with Hunt getting his first college pass completion and touchdown catch on the same drive.

Tuttle finished 28 of 52 for 188 yards for Indiana, which outgained MSU 322-241 and held the Spartans to just 13 first downs.

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 defense huge in 20-15 win at Indiana

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