EAST LANSING, Mich. – Kenny Willekes recovered two fumbles, including one in the end zone for a touchdown, and No. 18 Michigan State manhandled Tulsa 28-7 on Friday night.
Willekes, back on the field after breaking his leg in last season's Redbox Bowl, was part of a swarming Michigan State defense that held the Golden Hurricane to minus-73 yards rushing. The Spartans (1-0) still had their problems offensively, but that made little difference on this night.
Tulsa (0-1) botched two shotgun snaps in the second quarter -- part of the reason its rushing total ended up so far below zero. One of those loose balls went out of the end zone for a safety.
The touchdown by Willekes came after he and Raequan Williams sacked Zach Smith near the goal line. The ball came free, and Willekes came up with it to put Michigan State up 22-0.
The big question coming into this game was how Michigan State's offense would look after the Spartans scored only 32 points over the final four games of 2018. Coach Mark Dantonio shuffled roles around among his offensive assistants, making Brad Salem the offensive coordinator.
Michigan State got the ball first Friday and capped a penalty-aided drive with a 15-yard touchdown pass from Brian Lewerke to Connor Heyward. Then the defense -- which was No. 1 in the nation against the run last season -- took over.
Tulsa went with Smith, a Baylor transfer, at quarterback over returning sophomore Seth Boomer. It would have probably been a long night no matter who was in. Michigan State was up 25-0 before the Golden Hurricane scored. Smith threw a 28-yard touchdown pass to Sam Crawford late in the second quarter.
The Spartans have won 21 straight home openers.
Tulsa: The Golden Hurricane had trouble running and passing, and they didn't help themselves with three first-half turnovers. The final score could have been a lot worse.
Michigan State: The Spartans were never in much danger of losing this one, but in the end, they scored only one offensive touchdown. The offense failed to take full advantage of great field position in that second quarter, and there was some grumbling from fans at Spartan Stadium at various points in the night.
Michigan State was in the Top 25 despite all the concerns about the offense, and this comfortable win isn't likely to threaten that ranking.
Tulsa visits San Jose State next Saturday night.
Michigan State hosts Western Michigan next Saturday night.
Michigan State had the nation's top run defense in 2018, allowing just 77.9 yards per game, but the offense dragged the team down. The Spartans ranked 125th in the country in scoring offense (18.7 points), though much of that could be blamed on injuries that plagued most of the skill-position players. Coach Mark Dantonio is hoping for a much better offense this season, with senior quarterback Brian Lewerke (184-of-339, 2,040 yards, 8 TDs) healthy and returning under center. Tulsa coach Philip Montgomery has yet to name a starter at quarterback, with sophomore Seth Boomer (1,378 yards, 9 TDs) and Baylor transfer Zach Smith the leading candidates to take the job.
ABOUT TULSA (2018: 3-9)
The Golden Hurricane have a pair of solid running backs returning, though Corey Taylor II may have stirred the pot a little too much ahead of the opener. Taylor was quoted as saying he and fellow tailback Shamari Brooks - who combined for 1,813 yards in 2018 - should be able to get 200 yards on the ground and average five yards per carry against the Spartans. With Michigan State holding opponents to just 2.6 yards per attempt last season, that's a tall order, especially until whoever starts at quarterback can establish a passing game.
ABOUT MICHIGAN STATE (2018: 7-6)
The talk immediately following the disappointing 2018 campaign was about the job security of offensive coordinator Dave Warner, whose play-calling was questioned throughout the season. Dantonio didn't let Warner go, but he did change his duties, as well as those of five other coaches on his staff. Brad Salem is now the offensive coordinator after serving as quarterbacks coach the last six seasons, and the hope is he'll be able to re-energize a Spartans offense that scored just 32 points in its last four games combined.
1. Michigan State senior LB Joe Bachie has led the Spartans in tackles in each of the last two seasons, including a career-high 102 in 2018.
2. The Spartans are 7-0 in their previous Friday night games under Dantonio and have won 20 consecutive home openers.
3. Michigan State senior DE Kenny Willekes ranked first in the Big Ten in tackles for loss with 20.5 in 2018, leading the Spartans with 8.5 sacks.
PREDICTION: Michigan State 38, Tulsa 13