clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

Michigan State Offensive Player to Watch: Running back Jalen Berger

The former Wisconsin Badger has found a new home — and a starting role — in East Lansing, where he will look to run past the Buckeyes on Saturday.

Photo by Tony Quinn/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

The Ohio State Buckeyes finally hit the road this week as they make their way to East Lansing for a matchup with the Michigan State Spartans. The Buckeyes will head north to take on what we thought was a resurgent MSU program, brought back from the dead by Mel Tucker.

That might be a stretch, but Sparty was in a bad place after the awkward exit of Mark Dantonio. Tucker struggled through a 2-5 pandemic-shortened season, but filled out his roster with transfers and struck gold with them in 2021. That momentum was supposed to propel the team and their suddenly well-compensated coach forward, but now you have to ask if there is a sense or feeling of buyer’s remorse.

Tucker went back to the proverbial well this offseason, and once again supplemented his squad with a number of transfers. And the results have not been great, as MSU is 2-3 to begin the 2022 season, coming off of a third-straight loss at the hands of Maryland. The Spartans have been rather pedestrian on both sides of the ball, currently ranking 88th in points per game scored, and 54th in points per game allowed (out of 131 FBS teams). Their performance has not been a total surprise, considering who they lost and how those players were replaced. You cannot simply roll the ball out and win absent team chemistry.

On defense, MSU gave up the most passing yards in college football last year, and it wasn’t particularly close. They surrendered 325 YPG through the air, finishing as one of only two teams to give up 300+ per game. Duke was second-to-last, allowing 312. Behind them was New Mexico State with 291. So the Spartans were 30+ yards worse, per game, than the likes of NMSU, Louisiana-Monroe, and Hawaii... Yeesh. They currently rank much higher in 2022, although it should be noted that Mel Tucker’s bunch has not exactly faced a quarterback resembling Pat Mahomes or Aaron Rodgers.

On the other side of the ball, MSU lost Heisman candidate Kenneth Walker III, as well as experienced pass catchers Jalen Nailor and Connor Heyward from a potent offense. But Payton Thorne and Jayden Reed returned, so if the team cobbled together a running game, they figured to be just fine. They brought in Jarek Broussard, a 1,500-yard rusher at Colorado (17 games) to address that issue, giving them a big three of Thorne, Reed, and Broussard... right?

Not so fast my friend. Because Thorne has been inconsistent through five games, Keon Coleman – not Reed – is the team’s leading receiver, and Broussard has taken a back seat to another transfer running back. His name is Jalen Berger, and he is this week’s Offensive Player to Watch.

Berger’s name might sound familiar to Ohio State fans, or at least fans of the Big Ten. He spent a year plus at Wisconsin, where he had originally committed as a top-15 RB in the 2020 recruiting class. He was solid in his backup role as a freshman, rushing for 301 yards on 60 carries. However, he looked awful to begin the 2021 season, and was dismissed from the team after just a few weeks. There were rumors of a poor attitude and/or poor work ethic, but it seems that Berger is now back on the right track. He was brought in to battle with Broussard, and through a handful of games, has been the better back.

Many expected Broussard to win the starting RB job, due to his success across multiple seasons at Colorado. And he has certainly been a nice complementary piece, totaling 201 total yards and two touchdowns. But it is Berger who has cemented himself as RB1. There is a bit of thunder and lightning (store brand) between the duo, similar to what we see from TreVeyon Henderson and Miyan Williams. Berger is the noticeably bigger back, while Broussard measures in at 5-foot-9, 185 — which is not great for my OSU comp, seeing as though Henderson is a compact 215 pounds, but you get my point!

Getting back to Berger, he came out of the gates hot. He rushed for over 100 yards in each of the Spartans’ first two games, including an impressive 17-carry, 107-yard performance against Akron in which he also added three of his four TD. He has 301 rushing yards on the season, to go with 10 catches for 77 additional yards. Berger now appears more explosive than he did at Wisconsin, and runs with a greater sense of urgency. Whether fueled by his UW experience, or just improved with time, MSU coaches must be happy with the player they have welcomed into their program. Berger has workhorse potential, but fortunately for the Spartans, they are able to spell him another talented RB.

The former Badger has fallen off since his red-hot start, unfortunately following the lead of his team. Berger has totaled just 74 rushing yards (combined) in the Spartans’ last three games on 26 carries. During that stretch, he has also failed to find the endzone. However, he has not lost any ground or taken a back seat to Broussard. Because the former Colorado Buffalo has only rushed for 42 yards during the same stretch, while reeling in two receptions to Berger’s nine. Despite the lack of general success, Berger sits atop the food chain of MSU runners, and should continue to do so heading into this weekend.

Come Saturday, Ohio State’s front may or may not be tested by Michigan State. But for the Spartans to have any chance of pulling off this upset, I believe they will need to commit to the run and challenge the Buckeyes anyway. Because Thorne, while solid in 2021, has not shown the ability to beat a team single-handedly in 2022. Even with Reed, Coleman, and/or Mosley all available.

So my eyes will be on Berger, while acknowledging Broussard. If MSU if able to run the ball, and as a result, win the time of possession, then it should lessen the burden on Thorne and his receivers, and at the same time minimize opportunities for C.J. Stroud and the explosive OSU offense. Sparty could use a big win this weekend, but Buckeye fans are hoping for another rout. Go Bucks!