Wednesday, October 27, 2021

Column: MSU Football is finally exciting to watch again

September 8, 2021
<p>Head Coach Mel Tucker calls his players off the field, after a defensive stand, during the Spartans game against Northwestern. Michigan State won the season opener at Ryan Field 38-21, on Sep. 3, 2021.</p>

Head Coach Mel Tucker calls his players off the field, after a defensive stand, during the Spartans game against Northwestern. Michigan State won the season opener at Ryan Field 38-21, on Sep. 3, 2021.

Photo by Devin Anderson-Torrez | The State News

38 points. 

Michigan State scored 38 points on Friday, all from the offense. That isn’t a typo, Michigan State actually played well on that side of the ball.

MSU hadn’t scored 30 points in a game since Nov. 9, 2019, when Michigan State blew a 25-point lead against Illinois and lost 37-34. 

Sandwiched between those games has been a global pandemic that is still raging on, a renaissance in student-athlete empowerment, the hiring of an entirely new coaching staff and a roster overhaul that has brought in transplants from college teams across the country. 

Michigan State football hasn’t had an identity for two years and a positive identity for much longer than that. The 2018 and 2019 teams under Mark Dantonio fought tooth and nail to go .500 and get to a bowl game on the back of a tough defense while dealing with an inept offense. There were not many games that left fans feeling good about the team, win or lose, and not many games, if any, where the team excelled in all three phases. 

The win against Northwestern felt much different than any of the wins from the past three seasons. There wasn’t a letdown from one unit to the next; the offense gave the defense a cushion to work with and the defense responded with grinding out stops. Every player that stepped on the field did their job, or their "1/11th" as the players and coaches say, making MSU a well-oiled machine that rolled through Evanston with a victory. 

It was the first time in a long time that Michigan State played inspired, exciting football for all 60 minutes and provided a glimpse at what could be the future for MSU under Michigan State Head Coach Mel Tucker. 

He has preached the same things since he arrived a year and a half ago, getting faster and stronger as a team, fixing fundamentals, playing with grit and playing for the love of the game. The core tenets of Tucker’s coaching philosophy did not take hold with the 2020 team after the pandemic took away the offseason and the team struggled through the shortened season to a measly 2-5 record.

Tucker remained undeterred by the 2020 results and kept the same approach for 2021, this time with actual reps with the team to instill the attitude he wants and redefine MSU football as a hard-nosed winner. 

The team focused on conditioning and reshaping themselves with Strength and Conditioning Coach Jason Novak to be at their physical peak for the season. The results were evident on the field with MSU dominating the line of scrimmage on both sides of the ball and finishing tackles in space that were missed more often than not last year. 

“We want to see our guys, offense and defense and special teams, we want to see them fly around like bats,” Tucker said. “We want to see guys going relentlessly, perpetual motion non-stop, just, you know, see ball, get ball. Finish blocks, play through the echo of the whistle, finish on top.”

The speed and strength that Tucker has sought out in recruiting and the transfer portal coupled with the physical improvements from the returners were the difference in the opener. Michigan State played with a different level of intensity than Northwestern from the opening kick and exploited its athletic advantage. MSU looked like the team coming off the Citrus bowl victory to cap off 2020, not Northwestern who looked like they were coming off of MSU’s 2020 season. 

You could see Tucker’s vision for the team on every snap Friday night. You could see the speed that he wants at every position, the aggressiveness in the trenches, stable quarterback play, an effective special teams unit and players that know what they are doing on every snap.

Everything that seemed unattainable in 2020 was on display and there is no reason to think that it was a one-game fluke. The players are locked in and ready to prove that they can compete right away and that this season can be more than a rebuilding year. 

“It's just one week so we'll never be too high, we'll never be too low and we're going to come in next week and get to work,” Quarterback Payton Thorne said after the game. 

The next step for the team is consistency. The exciting brand of football from MSU in week one does not mean much if it cannot be replicated. The only consistency MSU has had over the past three years has been the bad play from quarterback and offensive line. Now they need to figure out how to repeat the positives instead.

“We have to build on it,” Tucker said. “That's why I'm proud of the staff and the players because we have a plan, we have a process... "Go out there and play hard, play physical play Michigan State football. That's what we set out to do, that's what we're going to continue to set out to do."

There was nothing about MSU’s performance that cannot be replicated over and over (besides a career game from Kenneth Walker III, that one might be tough to do again). The team has the players to play at a high level from a week-to-week basis and shock everyone in college football this year. 

The only people that won’t be shocked if MSU can continue this level of play is the team. Tucker maintained a quiet confidence during fall camp about the team’s chances. A “you’ll see” swagger permeated through his answers to the questions about the team’s new personnel and quarterback battle. He saw the roots of his mantra taking hold with the team and the team displayed those capabilities to the world on ESPN on Friday.

There is no way to know if MSU will be the same team next week against Youngstown State, that’s the amazing and simultaneously demoralizing thing about college football, but the pieces are in place. 

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There is one thing we know for sure though, this iteration of MSU football is not the teams of the end of the Dantonio era. 

That means MSU fans get to watch exciting football for the first time since Brian Lewerke injected the team with life in 2017. The week-to-week pain of watching MSU football that has been omnipresent for three years looks to be coming to an end and that is exactly what this team and fanbase needed, regardless of whatever the season brings.

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