Mel Tucker: miracle worker?

Seven days removed from looking like the worst team in the Big Ten, Tucker’s Michigan State team may not even be the worst Big Ten team in its own state. A 27-24 win over No. 13 Michigan in which the Spartans never trailed would tell you as much, but what exactly changed in a week that led to the Paul Bunyan Trophy returning to East Lansing for the first time in 3 years?

For starters, it helps to not have 7 turnovers. While Rocky Lombardi had only 2 interceptions against Rutgers, he avoided the careless throws into traffic this week against Michigan and looked more comfortable deciding just to throw the ball away when the Wolverines brought pressure.

Lombardi only completed 53% of his passes, but when he did make one of his 17 completions, it was usually for a large, chunk play. The junior QB, making his fifth career start, had 5 completions of at least 30 yards. It was clear from the start that OC Jay Johnson wanted to attack Michigan’s weak defensive backs with shots over the top, and it worked to great success.

“We were not surprised by what we saw out there,” Tucker said after the game.

Spartans wide receivers were aided by numerous coverage penalties that resulted in first downs as officials called virtually any contact all game long in an effort to keep the heated rivalry from getting out of hand. Michigan was flagged 10 times for 86 yards.

It’s one thing to have a game plan, but it’s another to execute. True freshman Ricky White was the executioner.

MSU top 10 receiving yards games

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Source: MSU media guide

White, virtually unheard of before the game with 1 career catch, put up a record-setting performance against Don Brown’s defense. White caught 8 passes for 196 yards and a touchdown, including explosive plays of 30, 31, 40 and 50 yards. His 196 yards tied for 7th-most in a game in Spartans history — and best ever by a freshman.

His best catch of the day came on a 12-play drive in the 3rd quarter that started on Michigan State’s 8-yard line and ended with the Spartans’ final touchdown of the day.

His breakout performance was direly needed as Jayden Reed only made 1 catch following a 128-yard performance against Rutgers. With the addition of White, Michigan State now has three dynamic weapons in the receiving corps — White, Reed and Jalen Nailor.

A dangerous passing game is good news as the Spartans look for a lead running back. Michigan State continues to keep Elijah Collins on the sideline, despite his rushing for nearly 1,000 yards in 2019, and instead ride Connor Heyward and Jordon Simmons. Simmons led the team in carries (14) and rushing yards (55) for the second straight week, while Collins has just 3 yards to his name this season.

An offensive line that struggled to open running lanes against Rutgers and allowed Lombardi to be sacked 3 times held up against the vaunted Michigan defensive line that sacked Minnesota’s Tanner Morgan 5 times in Week 1. Lombardi was never sacked.

Even if the Spartans are unable to find a 100-yard game from one of their backs, it looks like Tucker and Scottie Hazelton have a defense they can rely on.

Michigan scored 49 points and had nearly 500 yards of offense in Week 1. The Wolverines moved the ball with pretty decent success against the Spartans (452 yards), but Michigan rarely converted those yards into points.

Michigan State’s front seven consistently forced Joe Milton to throw before he was ready and completely eliminated the Wolverines running the ball between the tackles.

Linebacker Noah Harvey was everywhere, finishing with a team-high 9 tackles, and Jacub Panasiuk was an effective veteran. But it was Antjuan Simmons who stole the show.

Simmons finished with 7 tackles and great pass defense to keep Michigan out of the end zone as he lived up to his reputation as the Spartans’ leading returning tackler.

No, Michigan State is not going to run off 7 straight wins to compete for a Big Ten title, but the Spartans also aren’t the team that surrendered 38 points to Rutgers. Rutgers isn’t as bad as past years, and the floor isn’t that low for Michigan State.

The defense already had a few established veterans to at least be a middle-of-the-pack unit, and as Lombardi continues to gel with his young receivers and no longer have to worry about Theo Day or Payton Thorne breathing down his neck, the offense will continue to look better than it did in Mark Dantonio’s final years.

This is still very much a rebuilding year, but perhaps the cupboards weren’t left totally bare after all.

Tucker joined Nick Saban as the only Michigan State coaches to defeat Michigan in their first season, and in a matter of seven days, his future looks a lot brighter than the guy wearing the headset in Ann Arbor.