It’s been a couple weeks since Head Coach Mel Tucker assumed the podium on a Monday, thanks to a bye week giving the team a break after seven straight weeks of football.
With perhaps the biggest game of the season coming up this Saturday in Ann Arbor, Tucker’s message was essentially the same as it always is on a Monday afternoon: take things one day at a time.
“At this point in the week, it’s about one day at a time,” Tucker said. “What matters most is what we did today.”
Before heading into the bye week, Michigan State snapped a four-game losing streak and its first win against a power five opponent with its 34-28 double overtime win against Wisconsin.
After multiple weeks of disastrous showings, the defense finally stood tall in the victory, notching nine TFLs, three sacks and holding the Badgers offense to just 131 passing yards.
That improved performance can be tied directly to the return of two of Michigan State’s best defenders. Redshirt defensive tackle Jacob Slade bolstered the interior defensive line and fifth-year senior safety Xavier Henderson strengthened the struggling secondary. The two had missed multiple weeks due to injuries suffered early in the season.
“You can see a significant difference when you have two of your best players out on the field,” Tucker said of Slade and Henderson.
Thanks to the idle week, the roster had a bit more time to rest and recover. Players like Henderson, who are still affected by prior injuries, had more time to heal and build strength.
“We use the time to get healthier, and hopefully get some guys back,” Tucker said. “That’s what the bye week is for — we certainly use it for that.”
Per usual, Tucker did not specify which players are expected to return for Saturday’s game.
Michigan State didn’t just spend the week off resting. Game planning for the Wolverines was a focus of practice, as well as reflecting on what went right in the win against Wisconsin.
“Success leaves clues,” Tucker said. “We want to make sure that we understand why we have success so we can repeat it.”
It'll be much harder to replicate that winning recipe against the Wolverines this Saturday. Michigan has one of the most potent offenses in the Big Ten, averaging 42.7 points per game (sixth most in the nation, second only to Ohio State in the Big Ten). Junior running back Blake Corum leads a lethal rushing attack that averages 241.7 yards per game. Just a couple of weeks ago, Michigan collected over 400 hundred rushing yards against a stout Penn State defense.
"They have a good line, they're well coached," Tucker said. "The backs run hard, they can make you miss, they can run you over."
Sophomore quarterback J.J. McCarthy also appears to have opened up the passing game for the Wolverines with a his playmaking ability and strong core of receivers.
After struggling through a disappointing 3-4 start to the year, the Spartans have a chance to rectify some of their concerns with a game against their in-state rivals.
“We all know this weekend isn't just another game for us,” Tucker said. “Our players understand that, our staff understand that and our fans understand that.”
This Saturday, the Spartans and Wolverines will go head-to-head at 7:30 p.m., in a nationally televised showdown in Ann Arbor. Vegas pegs MSU as -21.5 point underdogs against Michigan.
Michigan State is no stranger to entering the Big House as massive underdogs. In Tucker’s first year as head coach, the Spartans were 24 point underdogs when they pulled off a 27-24 upset in Ann Arbor.
However, this time will be a little different. There will actually be fans in the stands. And it’ll be a night game for just the second time in the rivalry’s long history.
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“That’s what our players expect to be able to do when they come to Michigan State, to play on national television against great teams,” Tucker said. “It’s something that we look forward to as competitors.”
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