Michigan State football: The 5 biggest blunders Mel Tucker has made in 2020
Year 1 of Mel Tucker has been a bit of a mixed bag. To be fair, many would have probably considered 1 win as a successful year in East Lansing, so already winning 2 games with at least 2 more to play counts as exceeding expectations. Not only that, but Tucker got the biggest win the program could have by beating Michigan in Ann Arbor, and this past weekend the Spartans beat undefeated, No. 8 Northwestern.
But for as great as those two wins are, Michigan State also turned it over 7 times against Rutgers and lost by a combined score of 73-7 to Iowa and Indiana. Tucker’s program will get better with time as he has more games and practices to implement his changes, but these are the 5 biggest blunders he has made this season:
1. Not testing out the QB room enough
In need of a replacement for Brian Lewerke, the discussion this offseason in East Lansing revolved around which quarterback would emerge as the starter among Rocky Lombardi, Payton Thorne and Theo Day. Lombardi was tabbed as the early favorite, based on a slight advantage he had over the other two in terms of experience, and was given the job for Week 1 against Rutgers.
Lombardi has since started all 5 of Michigan State’s games, but calling his status as starter “safe” is far from the truth. Among 11 qualified passers in the Big Ten, Lombardi’s 54.1 completion percentage is last. His 8 interceptions are tied with Noah Vedral of Rutgers and Sean Clifford of Penn State for the most in the league, yet Lombardi has thrown almost 30 fewer passes than either of them.
Due to injuries and poor play, he’s been benched twice, giving way to Thorne on both occasions.
Lombardi could very well be the least of three evils, but not giving Thorne or Day much run is puzzling given Lombardi’s accuracy issues and the scores of some of the games. Lombardi played nearly the entirety of a 49-7 loss to Iowa, with Thorne getting just one series at the end of the game. Maybe Lombardi earned gobs of goodwill from beating Michigan the week prior, but a change should have been made against the Hawkeyes.
Thorne got his most play of the season against Indiana, the top ball-hawking defense in the Big Ten. Lombardi threw 2 interceptions in that game before exiting early, yet even after a bye week, Tucker opted to return to Lombardi against Northwestern. For a program experimenting in 2020 in search of a long-term answer, Michigan State shouldn’t be so locked in on a below-average QB.
2. What happened to Elijah Collins?
Remember the only returning player in the Big Ten to rush for over 900 yards in 2019? The same guy that returned the most touchdowns to this Michigan State team? Apparently the new coaching staff doesn’t, because Elijah Collins has been all but M.I.A. this year.
Michigan State hasn’t been great running the ball dating back to 2018. That year the Spartans ranked 119th nationally with a yards-per-carry average of 3.49. In 2019 with Collins rushing for nearly 1,000 yards, the team average was only incrementally better, finishing 115th in yards per carry at 3.53.
But somehow, 2020 is even worse. Through five games, Michigan State ranks 124th, averaging 2.72 yards a carry. The Spartans are one of three programs in the country with 1 or fewer rushing touchdowns and average less than 100 yards a game on the ground.
Even more confounding is how little Collins has touched the ball. He ranks 3rd on the team with 32 carries behind Jordon Simmons with 42 and Connor Heyward with 52. Against Michigan and Indiana, Collins had just 1 and 3 carries, respectively. From what the outside can tell, he’s not battling an injury. Tucker says it’s a practice thing, but turning away from the one sure thing on the offense certainly deserves some skepticism.
3. Scottie Hazelton’s scheme change
When Mel Tucker was hired, he brought Jay Johnson with him from Colorado to call the offense and hired Scottie Hazelton away from Kansas State to call the defense. Mark Dantonio had long established a 4-3 defense in East Lansing, and had the personnel to run it, but Hazelton had success with the 4-2-5 in the pass-happy Big 12 and decided to convert the Spartans to that base.
Removing linebackers from the field in favor of added defensive backs may not be the best move for the Big Ten. While some offenses are trending toward passing for over 300 yards a game like Purdue and Ohio State, the Big Ten is still a more ground-and-pound style than the Big 12.
Michigan State ranks 78th nationally in scoring defense, allowing 31.0 points a game. Changing schemes in a pandemic-altered season with virtually no spring practice for the Spartans may not have been the best decision in Year 1, but the 4-2-5 should improve as times goes on.
4. Not kicking a field goal against Rutgers
Michigan State had just cut the Rutgers lead to 28-20 in the 3rd quarter after Lombardi hit Jalen Nailor for a 30-yard touchdown. Three plays later Naquan Jones recovered a fumble forced by a Drew Beesley sack of Noah Vedral at the Rutgers 29. The Spartans had all of the momentum as they looked poised to tie the game on that drive.
But of course the offense called three straight rushes that gained a total of 8 yards, setting up a 4th-and-2. Rather than send out Matt Coghlin, who is pretty much a sure thing inside of 40, Simmons rushed for 1 yard, and Michigan State turned it over on downs.
Rutgers went on to score a field goal on the ensuing drive, and the deficit was never trimmed to single digits again as Michigan State lost 38-27. A field goal by Michigan State would have cut the score to 28-23 and placed the pressure squarely on a Rutgers offense that was still in its first game together and had 3 turnovers. I’m generally not opposed to going for it on 4th down, but the play calling on those 4 plays to run it with with a freshman running back behind a bad offensive line wasn’t the right move.
5. Kicking a field goal down 21 to Iowa
Iowa was already up 21-0 midway through the 2nd quarter. Lombardi had already thrown 2 interceptions, and just a week after beating Michigan, nothing went right in Iowa City.
The Spartans had moved the ball down to the Iowa 31 with just under 4 minutes remaining in the half and faced a 4th-and-5. They could either go for it, because what else do you have to lose down by 21, or they could elect to try a 48-yard field goal. Coghlin was good from 51 against Michigan, so perhaps the staff had confidence in their kicker, and they opted to try for 3. Coghlin missed.
Even if the field goal had been good, what benefit is there to being down 21-3? It’s still a 3-possession game, and there was over a half of football left to worry about not being shut out if maybe Michigan State wanted to just take 3 points late in the game to avoid being blanked. For a team rolling off a huge win in Ann Arbor, I would have let Lombardi try to hit one of his receivers.