Wednesday, June 19, 2024

Column: Dantonio’s final years hurt Michigan State, but Tucker’s defense has to be better

October 11, 2022
<p>Michigan State head coach Mel Tucker greets former Spartan head coach Mark Dantonio at the Peach Bowl on Dec. 30, 2021.</p>

Michigan State head coach Mel Tucker greets former Spartan head coach Mark Dantonio at the Peach Bowl on Dec. 30, 2021.

Darqueze Dennard. Trae Waynes. Kurtis Drummond. 

Those are just a few of the names that made up Michigan State’s “No Fly Zone” back in the glory days of Mark Dantonio’s program. 

Those elite defensive units guided Dantonio's Spartans to multiple Big Ten Titles, a Rose Bowl win and a playoff berth. 

After years of excellence under Dantonio, Michigan State fans became accustomed to a certain level of execution on the defensive side of the ball.

In 2013, during the Rose Bowl season, MSU's defense was the fourth best in the nation, allowing just 274.38 yards per game. The unit finished eighth in 2015, giving up an average of 315.8 yards per game. 

Even in the twilight years of Dantonio’s career, the defense was dependable. In 2018, when Michigan State finished with a 7-6 record, the defense was ranked No. 9 in the nation. In Dantonio’s final year as head coach, the unit finished 36th. 

Under Head Coach Mel Tucker, Michigan State’s defense has yet to finish inside the top-50. This season, Tucker's defense has been straight up embarrassing. The Spartans currently rank 113th in the nation in yards allowed per game, giving up an average of 445.5. The passing defense ranks 122nd. 

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Every week features blown coverages, missed tackles and a lack of production from the front-seven. Opposing quarterbacks consistently look like Heisman contenders when facing the Spartans' secondary. 

Now, let’s not get too rose-tinted with our memories of the Dantonio era. While his defense was consistently strong, the other side of the ball was occasionally putrid. Any fan that watched MSU’s 7-6 loss to Oregon in the RedBox Bowl can attest to just how grotesque Dantonio’s offense was at its worst. 

Despite winning multiple Big Ten titles and making the college football playoffs, Dantonio couldn't seem to gather any sort of steam in recruiting. From 2017-19, the last three years of his tenure, MSU finished 36th, 31st and 31st, respectively, in national recruiting. 

Those mediocre years of recruiting and losing provide context to just how tough of a rebuild Tucker had when he was hired back in 2020. With a global pandemic just a month into his tenure it makes a lot of sense that Tucker is still struggling for stability in his third year with the program. 

In Tucker’s second year as head coach, Michigan State had a magical season. Spurred on by ex-junior running back Kenneth Walker III, the Spartans clawed their way to a 10-2 regular season record and a New Year’s Six bowl win. 

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As impressive as that year was, it warped expectations for the program. All memories of Michigan State’s 2-5 season in 2020 seemed to fade away with each win. Heading into the 2022 season, a 2-3 start to the season was almost unimaginable for fans and media alike.

Tucker's first game as head coach was a 38-27 loss to Rutgers. That team was full of MAC-level talent (just look at where MSU players transferred to in Tucker's first two seasons). The transfer portal has certainly helped him turn around the roster quickly, but it's not magic. Tucker needs time to make Michigan State his own.

But excuses only go so far. 

Michigan State isn’t losing nail-biters thanks to a few small mistakes. The team isn't 2-4 because of just a few sloppy mistakes. They aren’t playing Ohio State every weekend. It’s not “death by inches,” as Tucker is fond of saying. 

Back in 2016, when Michigan State collapsed and went 3-9, when the games were far more competitive. MSU was a two-point attempt away from upsetting a top-10 Ohio State team at home. That year featured only two real blowouts: a 30-6 loss to Wisconsin and 45-12 loss to Penn State.

Besides losses and a dissapointed fanbase, 2016 and 2022 aren't all that similar. Michigan State was near the end of an excellent run with a veteran coach in 2016. In 2022, Tucker is just a few years into his tenure and the program is still very much in rebuild mode.

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However, to have a losing season is one thing — to look lifeless in every game against Power Five opponents is another, especially following an 11-2 season.

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To describe the pass defense as abysmal would be an understatement. After a couple of solid performances against the likes of Akron and Western Michigan, the front-seven has failed to make any sort of impact against Power Five opponents. The run defense hasn’t been quite as bad, but it’s certainly not a strength of the team, either. 

In short, there's not a lot of promise for Tucker's defense. 

Dantonio's final few years have certainly played a part in some of Michigan State's recent struggles, especially in terms of talent. But the performance of the defense has been inexcusable.

I’m not going to argue whether Michigan State’s defensive issues are a result of personnel or coaching. Tucker gets paid $9.5 million a year more than I do to figure that out. At the end of the day, it doesn't really matter; he has to find a way to improve the unit.

Tucker's program still has plenty of promise. He's shown a proclivity for finding gems in the transfer portal. There's been plenty of promise in the recruiting department. He's 2-0 against MSU's biggest rival.

But the defense has to be better. 

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