Michigan State football: The 3 biggest concerns halfway through the season
Four weeks into the Mel Tucker era and Michigan State stares at a 1-3 record for the first time in 11 seasons. Other than for a critical win over Michigan, which has equally struggled this year, the Spartans’ season has been the mess that many projected it to be.
With Saturday’s game against Maryland canceled due to COVID-19, Tucker loses another opportunity to evaluate his team and plan for the future. With games remaining against No. 19 Northwestern, No. 3 Ohio State, Penn State and a crossover opponent from the West, the worst may be yet to come.
There are no shortage of things for Tucker to address at the midseason point, but these 3 stand out as the biggest areas of concern:
What’s the offense’s identity?
Question No. 1 is a two-part one. The most pressing issue for the Spartans’ offense is who will be the starting quarterback against Northwestern. Incumbent starter Rocky Lombardi was pulled in the second quarter of Michigan State’s most recent loss to Indiana after throwing 2 quick interceptions just a week after tossing 3.
Payton Thorne replaced Lombardi, but the offense continued to sputter as the Spartans were shut out at home for the first time since 1985 and failed to ever reach the red zone.
Tucker has kept his cards close and won’t reveal a starter likely until next Saturday, but even when he does, there doesn’t seem to be an option that inspires much confidence in the offense. The Spartans appear to have a pretty talented trio of receivers in Jayden Reed, Ricky White and Tre Mosley, but the group can only do so much when there isn’t a QB who can consistently deliver an accurate ball.
And if there’s no consistency in the passing game, that leads to Michigan State’s next problem on offense: a lack of any sort of run game.
Since 2018, the running game has been a sore subject for the Spartans. It ranked 119th in the nation that year, averaging 3.49 yards a carry, and marginally improved last year to 3.53 with Elijah Collins nearly eclipsing the 1,000-yard mark.
Collins felt like one of the only sure things about the offense heading into 2020, but he ranks 3rd on the team with 19 carries — behind Jordon Simmons and Connor Heyward — and averages just 1.2 yards a carry. Through 4 games, the Spartans rank 122nd of 126 teams, averaging 73.8 rushing yards a game and fare even worse on a per carry basis, ranking 124th with just 2.2 yards.
All of this is to say that Michigan State’s offense has been an issue and has failed to make up for any shortcomings the defense may have. Only 6 teams in the nation average fewer points than the Spartans do (15.3), and the sledding isn’t about to get any easier as the schedule turns the corner.
Can the offense stop sabotaging the defense?
No, the defense hasn’t been great this year. Players have had their fair share of missed tackles and blown assignments, but to hang the 1-3 record and 33.8 points allowed per game squarely on the defense would not be a correct assessment of the situation.
Michigan State’s defense allows just over 390 yards a game, which is middle of the pack nationally and ranks higher than teams like Auburn, Florida and Michigan. The reason the defense has surrendered so many points in due largely to the position the offense continually throws the defense into.
The Spartans’ 14 turnovers are a B1G high and have led directly to 7 touchdowns for the opposition. Their average turnover margin of -2.25 per game is better than only 1 team in the entire nation. Making matters worse, the turnovers have led to short fields for opposing offenses. The average starting field position for Rutgers was its own 45, Iowa averaged starting at its own 46, and Indiana averaged beginning its drives on its own 47.
Considering the national average is somewhere closer to the 30-yard line, Michigan State’s offense is essentially handing the other team 15 to 20 yards on every drive, creating quite a predicament for the Spartans’ defense.
If Michigan State can just find a way to cut down on turnovers, which ultimately goes back to the question of who will be the starting QB, the defense may actually prove to be one of the few strengths on this team.
What’s the level of optimism? Who is sticking around?
The 27-24 win over Michigan inserted a bit of juice into Tucker’s program, an early feeling of optimism that was quickly erased with consecutive blowouts. While there was no reason to have lofty expectations for the 2020 season, being outscored by 74 points through 3 games is probably worse than what was anticipated.
Earlier this week, three more players opted out of the season, bringing the total to five. Two more entered the transfer portal. Six starters missed the Indiana game with injuries. There’s beginning to be less and less of reason to stick it out through this season.
The rest of the season will be a chance for coaches to evaluate their teams and prepare for 2021. Tucker has hinted that he values character as much as talent, and when things get rough, that’s when true character shows.
“When it’s tough and everything’s hitting the fan, I like kind of hunkering down and digging in with my guys and kind of circling the wagons,” Tucker said this week. “Just focusing on getting better and practicing, and blocking everything else out. I really enjoy that, because once you start to turn the corner and you see the improvement as a team, there’s no better feeling than that.”
With a difficult road ahead and uncertainty a plenty, it will be a challenge to keep everything together and stay on course for a better 2021.