B1G 5: Mel Tucker is the right man for the job — any job
1. The B1G story
He stepped to the podium and didn’t back down. When has Mel Tucker ever backed down?
“We all know this is a big week and what this is all about,” said Tucker, Michigan State’s 2nd-year coach. “For our players, our university, our fans, our alumni.”
And for Tucker, the coaching candidate.
When you’ve shown in the past that you’re not adverse to moving on from a job in its infancy, it’s impossible to avoid questions and conjecture about the next job.
Specifically, the LSU job.
The Tigers are looking for a head coach after firing Ed Orgeron, and Tucker – a former LSU assistant coach under Nick Saban in 2000, and most recently an assistant at SEC heavyweights Alabama and Georgia – is a natural fit.
He’s a tireless recruiter, a program builder, a coach who will stand toe-to-toe with Saban and Jimbo Fisher and Kirby Smart and all comers in the big, bad SEC, and not blink. Hell, he welcomes the damn expectations.
Case in point: It’s Michigan week in East Lansing, and the hated Wolverines are arriving unbeaten and looking to sidetrack Michigan State’s perfect season. The last time these two played as unbeatens was 2010, and it’s the first time in 57 years that both have been ranked in the top 10 at the time of the game.
There’s more on the line now than ever before.
So that was Tucker strolling to the podium Monday and embracing all things pressure and expectations. He said he told his players their “legacy and reputation” are built on rivalry games, and that not everyone gets an opportunity to play or coach in these games.
Forget about lazy coachspeak. You know, the “it’s just another game” or you “can’t let the moment get too big for you” mantra.
The same tripe that nearly every single coach worth his weight in cheesy sponsor promos says over and over again until you want to puke. Mel Tucker is talking about legacy and reputation, people.
He’s talking about playing a game that will be long remembered after you walk off the field Saturday at Spartan Stadium. A game that gets lodged in the throat of all things Green for 365 days when they’re on the short end.
There’s a distinct inferiority complex when it comes to Michigan and Michigan State. Hoity toity Michigan looks down on the land grant school, and all those Michigan State players Michigan didn’t offer.
You better believe it’s a big game. As big as it gets.
“I don’t try to play down expectations or anything like that,” Tucker says.
Now imagine it’s the first week in November 2022, and Alabama week has arrived for LSU — and new Tigers coach Mel Tucker isn’t intimidated by the greatest coach in the history of college football.
He’s not overwhelmed by the idea of finding a way to win a rivalry game against the king from Tuscaloosa. He wants to whip his ass.
This is what LSU AD Scott Woodward sees – not the fact that Tucker is barely into his second season at Michigan State, where he jumped to after coaching Colorado for all of one season.
He sees a coach who walked into a heavy lift at Michigan State, won 2 games in Year 1 and then worked the transfer portal better than any coach in the country to supplement a roster he quickly developed into an unbeaten team.
So yeah, he’s a natural fit for LSU. Because of the LSU and SEC connection, and because of what he could do with the talent on the current LSU roster that’s desperate for direction.
So naturally, Tucker was asked about the LSU job – and the response was classic Mel Tucker.
He didn’t’ avoid the question or say he loves Michigan State and wants to stay here forever, like many coaches do before walking away to the next big job. He responded like a coach in the middle of the biggest game of the year.
“My focus is on our upcoming game vs. the school down the road,” Tucker said. “That’s where my focus is, and I really appreciate you understanding that.”
A big win Saturday moves Michigan State one step closer to winning the Big Ten East Division and playing for the conference championship. That, of course, almost guarantees a spot in the College Football Playoff.
A big win Saturday also moves Tucker up Woodward’s list of potential coaches.
“We all understand the significance of this game,” Tucker said. “I love coaching and preparing for big games.”
Especially with so much on the line.
2. Big Blue quandary
Let’s get this out of the way: Michigan isn’t an elite team with QB Cade McNamara.
He completes 60 percent of his passes, and he’s not the most athletic presence. He doesn’t do anything special, but does enough to keep the Michigan offense out of trouble and in the right play. There’s a lot to be said for that.
But how much will that help as the East Division round-robin begins this week?
“I don’t think they can get where they want to go with him,” one Big Ten coach told me. “He’s solid. You know what you’ve got with him, and it’s not a guy who’s going to consistently stress defenses on third and make a play.”
Freshman backup JJ McCarthy, however, can. But has he played enough this season in tough spots (see: plenty of mop-up action) to not wilt under the pressure of performing against an aggressive MSU defensive front?
He throws a beautiful deep ball, and he’s a legitimate threat in the QB run game – the very thing that can beat the aggressive man under defense Michigan State plays. But he’s also liable to miss a protection, or not get out of a bad play, or try to fit a ball into a tight spot. All things that typically translate to potential disaster.
McNamara is the safe option. Not the best option, but the safest. If you’re Michigan and that’s where you are at quarterback 7 games into the season, that’s more of an indictment on the staff’s inability to get McCarthy ready to play than of McNamara’s limitations.
3. The Petras principle
Iowa spent the bye week soaking in the reality that quarterback Spencer Petras is a product of everything going right for Iowa.
And a liability when it doesn’t.
Petras was exposed in the loss to Purdue, and frankly hasn’t played above average all season. He has been protected by a strong run game and a defense that feeds him short fields with turnovers.
When that ended against Purdue, Petras was shown for what he is: limited with accuracy, and a guy who struggles when driving the ball downfield.
His TD/INT ratio is shaky (9 TDs/6 INTs), and he’s averaging a measly 6.7 yards per attempt. The ball doesn’t go downfield, and if it did, the accuracy isn’t there.
Now here comes the Wisconsin defense, a group that has played well all season despite little help from the offense. The Badgers are No.2 in the nation in total defense (223 ypg) and No.3 in opponent third down conversions (26.8 percent).
They’re No.1 in the nation in rush defense (53.3 ypg), and they have 18 sacks. Translation: They stop the run and get after the quarterback — and they get off the field on third down.
Not a good combination for Petras.
“They’ll get after you,” a Big Ten coach said of the Wisconsin defense. “(Wisconsin DC) Jimmy (Leonhard) is meticulous about finding flaws and zeroing in on them. They’re starting to figure it out over there on offense, which gives that defense a little more flexibility in being aggressive.”
4. Powered Up
This week’s Power Poll, and one big thing: the November game to remember.
1. Ohio State: Nov. 27 at Michigan. It’s always this game, and not surprisingly, Ohio State is always playing its best in the last week of November.
2. Michigan State: Nov. 6 at Purdue. No matter what happens against Michigan, the dangerous trap game in West Lafayette can ruin the season.
3. Michigan: Nov. 13 at Penn State: Can’t even think about You Know Who until you beat a Penn State team that could have 3 losses and has nothing to play for other than sidetracking a season.
4. Iowa: Nov. 13, Minnesota. The goal now: Win the West Division. Gophers are best division rival remaining, and haven’t won in Iowa City since 1999.
5. Penn State: Nov. 13, Michigan. Lions need one win in the round-robin, and the easiest get is Michigan.
6. Minnesota: Nov. 27, Wisconsin. The rivalry, the passion, the West on the line – and improving Wisconsin will likely be playing its best in a month.
7. Wisconsin: Nov. 27, Minnesota. Win out and beat the Gophers in a winner-takes-the-West showdown, and an ugly Badgers season looks a whole lot prettier.
8. Purdue: Nov. 13, at Ohio State. It’s not like the Boilers don’t know how to take down goliath.
9. Nebraska: Nov. 6, Ohio State. Want to guarantee your employment if you’re Huskers coach Scott Frost? Beat Ohio State in Lincoln. Then again, he may be playing for his job, anyway.
10. Maryland: Nov. 6, Penn State. Stop me when you’ve heard this: Terps start strong, fade fast. Coach Mike Locksley needs a signature win. Now.
11. Illinois: Nov. 27, Northwestern. Maybe Bret Bielema can figure a way to have 10 offensive linemen and the quarterback – and beat the rival Wildcats.
12. Rutgers: Nov. 20, Penn State: It’s all about recruiting – the only way Greg Schiano will turn it around in Piscataway. Beating Penn State is a huge step on the recruiting trail.
13. Northwestern: Nov. 27, at Illinois. At this point, Northwestern could be working on a 5-game losing streak.
14. Indiana: Nov. 27, at Purdue: A brutal season of injury and bad breaks will feel a little better with a win at rival Purdue.
5. The Weekly Five
Five picks against the spread.
Iowa at Wisconsin (-3.5)
Michigan at Michigan State (+4.5)
Rutgers (-1.5) at Illinois
Purdue (+7.5) at Nebraska
Penn State at Ohio State (-18.5)
Last week: 4-1.