MSU football may have found a big-play weapon in Elijah Collins

Michigan State running back Elijah Collins (24) runs up the field third quarter of their college football game against Western Michigan at Spartan Stadium in East Lansing, on Saturday, September 7, 2019. Michigan State won the game, 51-17. Michigan State running back Elijah Collins (24) runs up the field third quarter of their college football game against Western Michigan at Spartan Stadium in East Lansing, on Saturday, September 7, 2019. Michigan State won the game, 51-17.

EAST LANSING – Elijah Collins finally came off the field for good Saturday night, 1 yard shy of his first collegiate touchdown.

Michigan State's redshirt freshman knew he had a good day running the ball. His teammates wanted him to realize just how impressive it was. And they told him to look at the scoreboard.

"I probably glimpsed up there at the end. I just looked up, and I really didn't know how many yards I had, so I was curious," Collins said. "People were tapping me and like, 'Look, look, look, look, look.' I was like, I probably have like 110 or so, something low. I looked up, and it kind of surprised me a little bit."

He wasn't alone.

Collins ran for 192 yards on 17 carries in his first career start and injected a bolt of adrenaline to a long-dormant rushing attack for the 20th-ranked Spartans in their 51-17 blowout of Western Michigan.

It started with the second play of the game, a 29-yard burst that showed his speed to the edge behind a right side of the offensive line that created creases for him. It was the first of a number of big plays in MSU's 251-yard rushing night, the Spartans' most on the ground since getting 269 at Maryland last season.

"It was fun, it was a real confidence-booster," right tackle Jordan Reid said. "Western Michigan's defense wasn't as funky as Tulsa's was, so we had better angles for double-teams. We were just opening up the holes, and the running backs were hitting them."

It was a day of long runs for Collins. He ripped off six runs of 10-plus yards, also going for 24 yards on MSU's final drive of the first half and a 58-yarder early in the third quarter, with both leading to Matt Coghlin field goals. Collins averaged 11.3 yards per attempt.

"He is a very explosive player," MSU coach Mark Dantonio said. "He just needs confidence. ... Had a couple big ones, but he just needs to get in rhythm. And I think he did that tonight."

The 6-foot, 217-pound Collins totaled the most yardage by an MSU running back since LJ Scott's 194 yards at Minnesota in 2017. Connor Heyward's 157 yards at Maryland was the only time a Spartan carried the ball for more than 100 yards last season.

Collins' total also ranks second to Javon Ringer's 194 yards (at Illinois in 2005) among the best games ever by a freshman running back in school history.

"You feel good," Collins said of seeing his production. "I've been doing this, working. And it gives me the reassurance to keep doing what I'm doing, and everything else will fall into place."

Freshman debuts

With the Spartans pulling away, they were able to work in a number of freshmen.

Devontae Dobbs came into the game at left tackle late in the fourth quarter, with Nick Samac at center. They were blocking for classmate Anthony Williams, a running back who missed last week's opener but who flashed speed and strength in the spring game.

Williams ran six times for 35 yards, including a 17-yard carry.

"It's their first game so you know you got one right there in under their belt," offensive coordinator Brad Salem said. "But it seems like from being here 10 years, there have not been many opportunities to play young guys. ... I think those things are substantial, they really are."

MSU also handed its kickoff duties to true freshman Evan Morris instead of sophomore Cole Hahn. And Julian Barnett got a chance to return kickoffs late in the game.

Among the other redshirt freshmen getting their first action were QB Theo Day, DT Dashaun Mallory and LB-turned DE Chase Kline, who had a sack. OL Jacob Isaia also got a chance to line up in the backfield and deliver a key block to spring sophomore RB La'Darius Jefferson for one of his two TD runs.

Collins and tight end Trenton Gillison played a handful of snaps last year with the NCAA's new rule allowing true freshmen to play in four games and retain a redshirt.

Injury news

Wide receiver Jalen Nailor missed Saturday's game, and Dantonio said the sophomore is expected to miss significant time.

"I expect him to be back this season," said Dantonio, who said Nailor got hurt Wednesday during practice. "He's got a lower leg injury."

Nailor and fellow receiver Cody White alternated on punt returns in the 28-7 victory over Tulsa in Week 1. The 6-0, 191-pound Nailor returned two punts for 17 yards. He also had a pair of kickoff returns for 51 yards, including a 28-yarder, and showed elusiveness and speed.

White was back there against WMU and had one return for 10 yards.

Mallory came in after second-unit DT Naquan Jones pulled up gimpy after chasing WMU's Jon Wassink on a pass rush with a little less than 6 minutes left in the first quarter. Jones did not return.

In the fourth quarter, CB Kalon Gervin suffered an apparent left arm injury while making a tackle. MSU already was without fellow second-string CB Shakur Brown, who was not in uniform.

Defensive coordinator Mike Tressel alluded that both Brown and Jones "will both be back, there's no doubt about that."

Second-string DE Jack Camper and true freshmen DE Michael Fletcher weren't in uniform for the second straight game with right foot injuries. Others who did not dress were LT Cole Chewins (back), TE Noah Davis (undisclosed), WR Tre'Von Morgan (knee), DB Corey Pryor (undisclosed) and TE Jonathan Brys (undisclosed).

One player who did see time this week was left tackle A.J. Arcuri, who had been projected to start. The junior came in during the fourth quarter, replacing starter Kevin Jarvis.

Arcuri, who missed the opener vs. Tulsa with an ankle injury, also played up front on extra-point and field-goal units.

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