Michigan State football: Mel Tucker is ahead of schedule in Year 1
Rome was not built in one day, and neither will the Michigan State football program as it attempts to return to the peak that Mark Dantonio ascended to in 2015, winning the Big Ten and qualifying for the College Football Playoff.
Dantonio left the program this past winter, just months after becoming the winningest head coach in Spartans history with a win over Northwestern. For the second year in a row, a win over Northwestern marks a footnote for the Michigan State program as Mel Tucker is now just days removed from his second win over a Top 25 team. It’s been a rollercoaster year for Tucker in Year 1, with some really high highs and really low lows.
Michigan State has been a double-digit underdog on two occasions this year, and both times it emerged victorious, including that monumental win in Ann Arbor. The Spartans have lost a game as a double-digit favorite (vs. Rutgers), thanks to an astounding 7 turnovers, and then they were outscored by a combined 66 points in the losses to Iowa and Indiana.
Their game this weekend against No. 4 Ohio State hangs in the ether, but regardless of how the rest of the season pans out with games against the Buckeyes and a battle for the Land Grant Trophy vs. Penn State, Michigan State is already well on its way to climbing out of the conference cellar that so many prognosticated it would be in for several years.
“Culture doesn’t change overnight, it just doesn’t,” Tucker said following Michigan State’s 29-20 win over previously unbeaten No. 8 Northwestern. “Wins like today show what type of football we’re capable of playing when we’re focused, when we’re process-driven and when we play complementary football and when we take care of the football.”
Prior to Saturday’s win over Northwestern, Tucker’s Spartans looked as though their season was headed toward matching the worst of the preseason predictions. It turns out Michigan is no good.
Nonetheless, in the three-week stretch between wins, Tucker hammered a consistent message to his team of “compete to play, compete to stay.” No one’s position on the depth chart is safe. Just look at Elijah Collins’ role, or rather lack thereof, this season, going from the team’s leading returning offensive producer to now the third-string running back. With an added weekend off due to a cancellation with Maryland, Tucker’s message appeared to register.
The Spartans opened up a 17-0 lead over Northwestern, and even after blowing that lead, the team still clawed its way back to improve to 2-3.
The offense is certainly still a work in progress. The Spartans rank last in the Big Ten in points scored per game (18.0) and first downs per game (15.8). Michigan State ranks ahead of only Northwestern in yards per play (4.78) and yards per game (331.4) and has the most turnovers (15) of any team in the conference.
But even in only recording 362 yards of offense against the Wildcats, Rocky Lombardi and the entire team had just 1 turnover. The collection of running backs averaged 4.1 yards a carry, a substantial upgrade over their season average, and Jalen Nailor and Jayden Reed both had receiving touchdowns and catches of 75 and 21 yards of length, respectively. They are becoming consistent threats for explosive plays.
Better than the offense’s uptick in production, the defense is quickly taking form, dare I say starting to make a few plays that resemble some of those 2010s’ teams.
There were questions at the beginning of the season about how Scottie Hazelton’s Big 12 defensive scheme would play out in the Big Ten. It was a bumpy transition from the outset, as one would expect trying to convert a defense without any spring practice. But against Northwestern, the Spartans allowed a season-low 20 points. The defense recorded season-highs in takeaways (4) and sacks (4). Peyton Ramsey completed less than 50% of his throws for the first time this season, and the Wildcats were held to fewer than 65 yards of rushing for just the second time this season. With Shakur Brown making 2 more interceptions, he’s now tied for the national lead (5).
The unit is clearly turning the corner, and players are buying in.
“What happens is players want more,” Tucker said Saturday. “They want more of that feeling, that feeling in the locker room after the game or the feeling when a team comes roaring back and they take the lead but you don’t flinch and then you stay the course, you stick with the process, you execute and you’re able to answer.”
The bar was low for Tucker and his staff entering this season, but after a second game of his team dancing in the locker room following a shocking upset, Tucker has cleared that bar with ease as his team enters the final weeks of the season with momentum trending toward an optimistic future.
“This is a time where we need to continue to tighten the screws,” Tucker said. “This is not a time for relief. This is part of the process, and it’s showing up.”