Before the coronavirus turned the world upside down, the Michigan State football team was scheduled to open up their 2020 season at home against Northwestern. Once the Big Ten released their revised, conference only schedule just days before postponing the season back in August, the Spartans shifted their focus to playing Minnesota on opening night.
Now, MSU is on their third opening day opponent. After a crazy, back-and-forth month that resulted in Big Ten presidents and chancellors unanimously agreeing to reinstate the football season, the green and white have their eyes on Rutgers. The Scarlet Knights will visit East Lansing Oct. 24 for the first game of the season, and the two teams will play in a virtually empty Spartan Stadium.
"When we heard news about (the season starting back up), everybody was pretty excited," junior quarterback Rocky Lombardi said. "You could tell today by the energy at practice that people are excited to play. We're ready to get out there."
The Spartans held their first on-field practice Monday, and first year head coach Mel Tucker wasted no time getting things going with just one month to prepare for Rutgers.
"Really high energy," Lombardi said of his team's first practice. "It was supposed to be a little bit of a late practice, but it was high tempo. Coach Tuck's not messing around now, man. He's getting us ready to go. He's motivated and we're motivated, so it was a good practice. Everybody was flying around, really excited to see what we got for this next week."
The biggest difference between practicing now as opposed to in August is balancing the player's class workload with training. During camp in August, the focus was only on football. Now, the team will have to get ready to play while balancing classes and practice, acting as more of a midseason routine rather than preseason.
"We can't really do a fall camp because of school," Lombardi said. "Now, guys got classes and tests and exams, so you can't practice as much as you would in August. It's more of a regular season type of vibe where you get the 20-hour workweek where you lift in the morning and go to practice in the afternoon. It's definitely not fall camp, it's much shorter than that."
Senior linebacker Antjuan Simmons led the Spartans with 90 tackles last season and enters this year as one of the bona fide leaders on the team. His role on and off the field will increase this season as the defense is facing substantial turnover, losing stars such as Joe Bachie, Kenny Willekes, and Josiah Scott to the NFL.
Simmons, like the rest of his teammates, was pumped to get back on the field Monday. When asked to describe Tucker's intensity level on a scale of 1-10, he instantly came back with "10, and probably plus some."
"He came out with his whistle wet and he was ready to go," Simmons said. "He was blowing that whistle every shot he got today. So he was ready, it wasn't no if, ands, or buts about it. When he hit the sidelines, it was 'have your shirts tucked in, no razzle-dazzle, none of that extra stuff.' ... he's holding everybody accountable, like every single person."
By every single person, Simmons isn't just talking about the players.
"Coaches have to run to the balls, just like players do," Simmons said. "It's insane. Practice is fast, like it's really fast. The tempo, I don't know if there's a point where we're not running. If we're not running, we're standing there in between plays or in between a period, because we don't have to go anywhere."
Following the Rutgers game, MSU will travel to Ann Arbor to take on Michigan Oct. 31. That game is usually played later in the season, but this is 2020, where the unexpected usually tends to happen. With MSU playing their in-state rival on the road this season, it ensures they won't play Michigan and Ohio State both on the road or both at home in a single season. The Spartans will host the Buckeyes Dec. 5.
"That's why you come here," Simmons said. "Big games like that, it's not going to get any bigger than that right out the gate. They're going to come ready to play, we're going to come ready to play, and it's going to be a good game. We're definitely excited."
With a condensed eight game schedule and a ninth opponent still TBD, things won't be easy for Tucker in his first season at the helm. On top of Michigan in week two and Ohio State Dec. 5, the Spartans wrap up the season in Happy Valley against Penn State Dec. 12. With only one month to get his team ready to play, one thing is for certain: Tucker is bringing the heat.
"The intensity is through the roof," Simmons said. "You definitely have to come ready to go with the right mindset, or you'll quickly fall off the train."
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