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Niyo: Spartans' Hunt for Big Ten title finds another hero at perfect time

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Bloomington, Ind. — Tyler Hunt was a punter before he was a tight end at Michigan State. And he was so much more than that as multi-sport athlete growing up in Gobles, a small town in west Michigan halfway between Kalamazoo and South Haven.

But Saturday afternoon, the Spartans’ fifth-year senior and former walk-on was something else altogether. And by the end of another strange-but-true victory for Michigan State, he was a symbol of what this team has become: More resilient, more resourceful and more imaginative than anybody would’ve predicted before the season.

On a day when the Spartans’ primary playmakers were largely held in check — and out of the end zone — it was Hunt who played a starring role as Michigan State managed to rally from a halftime deficit and remain unbeaten heading into its bye week, setting the stage for a huge rivalry showdown against Michigan in East Lansing on Oct. 30.

It was Hunt who pulled the trigger on the Spartans’ trick-play treat in Saturday’s 20-15 victory. And it was Hunt who scored the winning touchdown, further proof that Michigan State’s top-10 ranking really is the product of the sum of all of its parts.

The offense that had carried the Spartans through the first half of the season couldn't even carry the football across midfield until the third quarter. And in the end, that unit needed to thank the defense for securing the Old Brass Spittoon.

Likewise, a team that had relied on the big-play ability of its skill-position talent on offense — from Heisman Trophy candidate Kenneth Walker III to quarterback Payton Thorne and his top two targets, Jayden Reed and Jalen Nailor — had a linebacker, a former punter and a sixth-year kicker to thank for all its points Saturday.

It was Cal Haladay’s pick-six that gave the Spartans an early lift, and MSU’s Matt Coghlin’s leg that capped the scoring late, tacking on a 49-yarder midway through the fourth quarter after earlier booting a 51-yarder on a windy afternoon at Memorial Stadium. And it was the defense that finally put this one away, asked to come up with a pair of stops in the waning minutes after Thorne got a bit too greedy with Spartans up by five and threw an interception with 3:14 to play.

More: Spartans vow to 'be better' after offense sputters against Hoosiers

“I talked about it before the game to the guys,” senior safety Xavier Henderson said. “I told ‘em I’m tired of hearing the defense is kind of getting piggy-backed by the offense, you know what I mean? I’m tired of that.”

Saturday’s great escape may not end that sort of talk completely, as Indiana controlled the ball and the clock for the entire first half. But the Spartans will all get a bit of rest now before the Wolverines come to town for what is now — after Iowa's upset loss at home to Purdue — a matchup of the Big Ten’s two remaining undefeated teams.

“Oh, yeah, we’ve been thinking about that for a while now,” Henderson said, smiling. “But we’ll have fun with this one and we’ll get back at it pretty quick to get ready.”

Be ready for anything

And when it comes to these Spartans, Saturday was simply another reminder that you’d better be ready for anything.

Like that play that sparked Michigan State’s lone touchdown drive, for example. A reverse pass from Hunt to Thorne that the Spartans had only started working on this week in practice.

Hunt was a high school quarterback who rushed for over 1,200 yards in a Wing-T offense and can throw a football 50 yards with either hand. He’s also a former linebacker, safety, kicker and punter, having done a little bit of everything at Gobles, where the school enrollment is smaller than some lecture classes at Michigan State.

“I remember meeting one of Tyler’s brothers and he told me there was like 25 dudes on their high school football team and he just did it all,” Henderson said. “So I wasn’t surprised.”

By now, really, no one should be with this team. Or with the coaches’ willingness to take chances, as offensive coordinator Jay Johnson did again Saturday after both teams had traded interceptions late in the third quarter.

“Coach Johnson getting a little spicy in the call game right there,” Henderson said, when asked about Hunt's quarterback cameo against the Hoosiers.

Thorne said the play actually was dialed up to start Michigan State’s possession, which began at the Indiana 38 after Darius Snow’s interception that was set up by Jacub Panasiuk’s hit on Indiana quarterback Jack Tuttle.

But the Hoosiers showed a blitz look at the line of scrimmage, so Thorne checked to a run play that resulted in a 5-yard gain for Walker. The next snap, they decided to go back to it.

“Still wasn’t a great look, but I didn’t think they were blitzing so I went ahead and ran it,” said Thorne, who was a little dismayed to see Indiana’s defensive end dropping into coverage as he handed the ball off to running back Jordon Simmons and then eased into a pass route himself.

Hunt rolling to his right

Hunt, who’d been lined up wide to the left, came across into the backfield after the snap, took a flip from Simmons and then started rolling to his right looking downfield.

“I saw Payton leaking out, I saw the safety roll over and I was supposed to get it out a little quicker than I did,” he said. “But I had to wait for him to get past the safety.”

He couldn’t wait any longer, though, because Indiana’s senior linebacker, Micah McFadden, was bearing down on him 15 yards behind the line of scrimmage, delivering a hit just as Hunt let it fly.

“I just threw it up and gave him a chance to make a play,” he shrugged.

A chance was all Thorne needed, apparently, as he made a leaping grab behind two defenders to haul in Hunt’s perfectly placed toss.

“That’s gonna have to go up there with a few of the catches I made at recess back in elementary school,” laughed Thorne, who managed to get his left foot down inbounds on the 15-yard reception.

The officiating crew initially ruled Thorne was out of bounds, however. Thorne wasn’t so sure, and he turned to the players and coaches on the Indiana sideline and asked, “Was I in, actually?” They told him no, he said, not that Thorne expected any different.

“But one of our ball boys told me after the game that they were sitting there and turned to him and said, ‘Yeah, he was definitely in,’” Thorne said.

A replay review eventually confirmed as much, and three plays later, Michigan State found itself facing third-and-3 from the 12-yard line. And in a game of field goals, it felt like a touchdown was imperative at that point.

So where else would Thorne turn but to Hunt, right? A play-action run fake to Walker, who was limited to 84 yards on 23 carries Saturday, worked to perfection as Hunt started blocking a safety on the right side of the line and then snuck behind a linebacker into the end zone to haul in his first career receiving touchdown.

“When the play call came in, I looked at what they were in and it was a great defense for the play,” Thorne said. “But he did a great job of stalking and then he got going and there was nobody back there.”

Nobody but Hunt, as it turned out. And for a team nobody expected to be where it is now — nobody but the Spartans, at least — that was probably the perfect snapshot for this one.

Twitter: @JohnNiyo