Friday, November 27, 2020

Column: Mel Tucker and MSU prove everyone wrong in win over Michigan

October 31, 2020
<p>MSU Head Coach Mel Tucker applauds after his offense scores a touchdown in the first half of the game against U of M in Ann Arbor, Michigan, on Oct. 31, 2020.</p>

MSU Head Coach Mel Tucker applauds after his offense scores a touchdown in the first half of the game against U of M in Ann Arbor, Michigan, on Oct. 31, 2020.

Photo by Alyte Katilius | The State News

In 113 games, there hadn’t been one quite like this.

There were no fans; cardboard cutouts replaced them. There wasn't any tailgating either; empty lots replaced it. 

One head coach, falling to a team that hadn't won a Big Ten game in 21 attempts. The other, coming off a 25-point win on the road against a rising program that went 11-2 last season.

Jim Harbaugh was supposed to win this game. Mel Tucker needed to. For more reasons than just silencing those in doubt.

Tucker and the Spartans shocked not just the Wolverines on Saturday, but everyone, in a 27-24 upset road win over No. 13 Michigan at an empty Big House. 

“State fans, this one’s for you,” Tucker said following the win.

It took one of the best games a freshman receiver has ever seen: Ricky White’s 196 receiving yards was a dominant showing against a Michigan secondary that struggled. 

But maybe most importantly, a week after MSU faltered, turned the ball over seven times and lost 38-27 to Rutgers, Tucker got a statement win for a program that was reeling.

“First and foremost we talked about all week that we need to take care of the football,” Tucker said. “... We were confident going into the game that we would be able to do that, everyone was confident in the game plan and we wanted to play complementary football."

But no one was expecting this. Tucker’s first win as head coach at MSU comes at possibly the most crucial juncture of the Spartans' season.

Michigan came in favored by 26 points, depending on where you looked. 

With a 92-yard drive, a fourth-down conversion with :38 left in the game and the leap of Connor Heyward into the endzone on an 11-yard catch and run that gave the Spartans their final lead, it became apparent that MSU was going to win.

“We knew we needed to make this a physical game, and we were prepared to do that for sixty minutes ... and that’s what we did,” Tucker said.

I’m shocked, along with maybe everyone else who watched the game. Tucker joined Nick Saban as the only MSU head football coach to win their first game against Michigan on Saturday.

After the game against Rutgers, that’s not a sentence I thought I would be writing.

A game that means this much because of the way it was won

This game, this win, might mean more to Tucker’s legacy as a head coach than any other. For now. 

Especially a win and the way it happened. The defense, which was in a new 4-2-5 scheme in Week 1, was beyond improved. The defensive line of MSU showed, along with the entire unit, that it can bend and not break. 

Heyward, who almost left the program, had two touchdowns.

Rocky Lombardi had 323 pass yards and three touchdown passes.

Punter Bryce Barringer, who wasn’t even on the team in 2019, consistently pushed Michigan back. 

And then a freshman wide receiver, relatively unknown by many, had the game of his life. White had one of the 10 best statistical performances by a receiver in MSU history.

Tucker out-coached Jim Harbaugh on Saturday. U of M’s secondary — outside of Daxton Hill — struggled. The play calling by MSU was too conservative early on, but both sides of the ball made it happen when it mattered most.

After turnovers doomed MSU's game against Rutgers last week, today, neither team had one.

“Pauly B is back with us,” MSU linebacker Antjuan Simmons said after the game.

Simmons might’ve made the biggest defensive play of the game with a tipped pass in the redzone that prevented an easy U of M touchdown.

In a rivalry game, anything can happen

People always say to throw records out the window during a rivalry game.

“We haven’t had Paul in the locker room for two years now maybe,” Lombardi said. “We really wanted that game and to win that game, come back to the locker room and on top of that get the first win of the season and coach Tucker’s first win of the season and coach Tucker’s first Michigan win, it was just a lot of emotions piled on top of each other. It’s going to motivate us for the rest of the season.”

I wasn’t buying into that, not before today. I’m not sure how many others were, but Tucker proved with the win that he can handle the pressure of a fan base with expectations and scrutiny abound. 

Michigan had 10 penalties for 86 yards, but in this game it always is scrappy. 

There were mistakes still. Shakur Brown’s unsportsmanlike conduct penalty in the third quarter gave the Wolverines points when their offense looked dead in the water on 3rd and 10. But the Michigan offense struggled to do the very thing it succeeded so much with against Minnesota: running the ball.

After rushing for 256 total yards against the Gophers, Michigan still had 152 against MSU. That’s not a small number, but it took 34 carries instead of 31 like it took in Week 1.

It was a strange game for many reasons. 

But either way you cut it, a win is a win, especially when it's your first as head coach.

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