There was not a single moment that stuck out to Michigan State Football Head Coach Mel Tucker that led to Michigan State’s upset loss to Purdue. Instead, he said it was a collection of mental mistakes that arose time and time again throughout the game which caused the loss.
The mistakes that led to Michigan State’s first loss of the season were not new problems when they arose Saturday in West Lafayette. The struggles in the secondary and boneheaded penalties have hurt MSU a number of times earlier this year. The difference in the loss to Purdue was the frequency of the mistakes.
“The game was death by inches,” Tucker said. “Obviously give Purdue credit, however, the lack of execution on a consistent basis on offense, defense and special teams was very, very disappointing, unacceptable and we need to get it fixed.”
Michigan State’s defense surrendered 536 passing yards to Purdue which was the second-most passing yards given up by MSU in school history. Over 90% of the Boilermakers’ yards came from fifth year quarterback Aidan O’Connell, who had by far his best career game against MSU. (No.1 performance was Bryce Petty in the 1st 2015 cotton bowl).
He was able to take advantage of Michigan State’s shaky secondary, which ranked last in the Big Ten in passing yards given up entering the matchup. The errors that put MSU at the bottom of the Big Ten proved to be the team’s undoing in its first loss. MSU could not overcome the litany of mistakes, especially in the secondary, to compete with Purdue.
“It's just kind of a slap in the face when you lose the game,” senior safety Xavier Henderson said. “You kind of wake up like ‘Oh, we can't let this slide like we have in the past.’ When you win games, it makes everything better. You talk about it but you don't really nail it like you really need to so that's what we've got this week.”
Throughout the week, players and coaches have talked at length about addressing the issues that led to MSU’s “death by inches.” The biggest task is fixing recurring mistakes and perfect fundamentals, particularly in the secondary.
Henderson said that the biggest areas of concern that he saw after watching the game film from Purdue were missed assignments and miscommunication in the secondary, defensive backs looking in the wrong spots and staying locked in each and every play. He added that staying locked in is especially important for the secondary to prevent explosive plays.
“Dudes can mess up up front but in the back end if you got it down it's not going to be a touchdown,” Henderson said. “So no missed assignments is really critical.”
The secondary’s mistakes may have been the most glaring in the loss to Purdue, but it was not the only reason why MSU lost. Other issues like a lack of discipline leading to penalties and turnovers also undermined the Spartans’ chances to win.
“Just watching the film, you watch the mistakes that were made on both sides of the ball and on special teams,” redshirt sophomore quarterback Payton Thorne said. “And a lot of them were just technique stuff and not using just basic technique, whatever position it was. So (we’re) getting back to that and focusing on that.”
The path to fixing the fundamentals started with a conversation between Tucker and the leadership group on the team that features players like Thorne and Henderson. Tucker said he wanted to hear their perspective on what went wrong and help coach the rest of the players through them during this week’s practice.
“I had some questions I needed to ask those guys,” Tucker said. “I wanted to get some feedback on some things, what they were thinking, what they were seeing on the team. And I'm feeling confident that those guys are gonna step up and help me and help coach this team this week.”
Henderson and Thorne said the conversation with Tucker is typical following a game, win or loss. This conversation, however, focused on getting back to playing the type of football that led MSU to a 8-0 start. Henderson said that it has been a good week of practice so far following the conversation and are ready to move on from the loss entirely.
“We're excited just to compete again,” Henderson said. “Just to get out there and do better than we did last week honestly.”
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