With the game in the balance, Payton Thorne lined up under center on fourth and one on the Miami 40-yard line. MSU was leading 24-17 with just under five minutes remaining, looking to close out what had been a tight game on the road.
Thorne took the snap and plunged into the depths of the line of scrimmage, fighting for the first down to keep the ball away from D’Eriq King and Miami. As bodies emerged from the pile, it wasn’t clear if Thorne got the yard he needed. The chains were brought onto the field and it was measured.
As the first down marker was stretched, it looked like Michigan State was short and would be giving the ball back to Miami. But the marker did not pass the nose of the football, it was one chain link short. First down MSU.
The inch ended up being all Thorne and MSU needed to capitalize and bury Miami. In the next play, Thorne found redshirt junior wide receiver Jalen Nailor for a 39-yard touchdown to extend the lead to 31-17 with 4:12 remaining, sending Miami fans to the exit in droves.
Football is a game of inches, and Michigan State earned that inch on the Thorne sneak to ice the game and show the college football world that MSU is ready to re-enter the national spotlight through whatever means necessary to win.
The win today displayed the difference between Michigan State and Miami, two programs fleeting in opposite directions. After a back-and-forth first half where both teams were struggling for control, Michigan State took over and showed that they are on the way up and Miami is a program fading out of that same spotlight.
That type of win wouldn’t have happened in the past few iterations of Michigan State football. The resilience shown on defense to battle through mistakes in the secondary and shut down King in the second half would not have happened last year.
The aggressiveness to go for it on fourth down and crush the spirits of the opponent once and for all would not have happened last year. Michigan State winning the turnover battle by four would not have happened last year.
But there is one key difference between Michigan State football of the recent past and Michigan State football this year: Mel Tucker and his brand of football have arrived and embedded themselves in the players and coaching staff.
The first year of Tucker’s regime was marred by the challenges of the COVID-19 pandemic and could never take hold in a season defined by zoom calls and canceled football games. This year, the distractions are not as encroaching into the program and Tucker has capitalized on that and worked to instill the attitude and expectations he wants from players.
And the results speak for themselves.
Michigan State is 3-0 on the year, surpassing their win total from all of 2020 in the least amount of games needed. The Spartans will be ranked in the AP poll tomorrow, the first time since the beginning of the 2019 season and they're ready to continue the climb.
But a win on the road against a declining power is not the ceiling for this team. Cracking the top 25 is nice, but that is not all in store for Michigan State this year.
Tucker said following the game that it is impossible to say what this team can accomplish this year and he will not implement any “self-imposing limitations” for the potential of this team.
And Tucker was right.
Michigan State played far from a perfect game in Miami today and still walked away with a 21-point victory against the 24th ranked team in the country. The first half was littered with mistakes all over the field for the Spartans and Miami could not capitalize on it and take a lead.
Michigan State has not played to its full potential yet through three games and has steamrolled everything in its path, whether it is a Big Ten opponent, an FCS team, or a ranked non-conference foe on its own turf.
The one thing in common in the three victories, though, is the brand of football that Michigan State has played. It has played Tucker football and the most evident case was today after a lackluster start.
The secondary could not stay with Miami wide receiver Charleston Rambo and gave up 245 total yards to King in the first half and only allowed seven points.
That is resilience.
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Michigan State was not comfortable with a one-possession lead and scored two more touchdowns in the final five minutes of the game to put the nail in the coffin.
That is aggressiveness.
Michigan State’s offense did not have any mental mistakes and turn the ball over while the defense turned over one of the country’s best quarterbacks four times.
That is mistake-free, complementary football.
The Mel Tucker blueprint to success was on full display for Michigan State and it led to another resounding victory and celebration for the MSU fanbase that has been craving anything to latch onto for years.
If Michigan State can continue with the blueprint, there is no telling what this team could turn out to be, like Tucker said. The team will continue to get better and better with more time with the coaching staff and more reps on the field, which could lead to a lot more surprising victories like today’s.
The unknown future can be scary for programs like Miami, who are left with plenty of questions about its athletic director and coach after today's tough loss. But the unknown future can be a beautiful thing for programs like Michigan State, which has no idea what they can achieve and are ready to shock the world.
There is one thing we know for sure now about this program though; Tuck isn’t coming anymore.
Tuck has arrived.
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