Last Saturday afternoon Michigan State upset No. 14 Illinois on the road and improved to 4-5 this season.
Upsets happen all the time in college football, even on the road. Head Coach Mel Tucker already has multiple under his belt in his time at Michigan State.
Viewing things one game at a time, the Spartans’ 23-15 win against the No. 14 Fighting Illini over the weekend was a good win but nothing spectacular. It certainly wasn’t the best team Tucker has beaten in his time at Michigan State.
But in college football situational context matters. And the situation has been pretty bleak for the Spartans this season.
Starting off the season 3-5 after being inside the AP Top 25 was bad enough. Being blown out by the likes of Minnesota at home hurt too. Roster attrition only heaped onto what was already a lackluster start for the team.
However, the program reached new lows on rivalry weekend.
After a second half collapse wrapped up a 29-7 loss to the interstate rival Wolverines, the Spartans decided to take out some frustration in the post-game tunnel. As depicted in multiple videos made public, two Michigan players were assaulted by multiple Michigan State players.
In the fallout of the embarrassing incident, Tucker suspended eight players from the team including star senior linebacker/defensive end Jacoby Windmon. Every single one of those players belonged to the defense.
For a team that had struggled mightily on that side of the ball, losing eight players seemed to spell doom for the weekend trip. Coupled with the noise from media, opposing fans and the fanbase itself, the odds were stacked against Michigan State heading into Saturday afternoon.
With all that in mind, Michigan State went into Champaign and won.
After signing a $95 million, ten-year contract with the university, Tucker has been under all sorts of scrutiny (rightfully so). That criticism reached peak levels last weekend as questions arose about his culture and ability to properly lead a team of young men.
Tucker didn’t completely silence critics with Saturday’s upset. And to be fair, there’s still three games left on the schedule for the team to implode. But for now, he proved one thing: The program is still able to block out the noise and fight and claw its way through adversity.
With all that has transpired this season, especially in recent weeks, to go out and win a road game against a top 25 team was essential for the program.
It proved a couple of things about Tucker's Michigan State: One, the team can actually block out the noise and two, the “next man up” mentality is real.
Tucker has talked about both of those qualities every year but they had yet to really show up consistently this season.
After a disappointing loss to Washington in the third game of the season, Michigan State came home and collapsed against the Gophers. MSU followed that awful performance with a lifeless loss to Maryland. When things started to get noisy, it seemed as though it was just too much for the Spartans. But with the season at its nosiest, the team finally seemed to settle down, truly block out the noise and get to work against Illinois.
“We didn’t let the distractions get to us,” sophomore linebacker Cal Haladay said. “I think we did a good job just staying resilient, coming together and playing.”
With a boatload of attrition throughout the roster this season, Michigan State’s depth has been heavily tested with varying results. The absence of fifth-year senior safety Xavier Henderson and redshirt senior defensive tackle Jacob Slade seemed to be too glaring an absence for MSU during the four game losing streak near the start of the season.
However, Michigan State’s defensive depth players have slowly but surely improved as the season has marched on. Missing eight players, the unit finally passed the “next man up” test against Illinois.
“I give (defensive coordinator) Scottie (Hazelton) and our defensive staff a lot of credit for continuing to work to develop our defensive players,” Tucker said. “We have a next man up mentality. We took our lumps but we’ve started to play better.”
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It wasn’t just the starters that played up in their teammate’s absence. Those asked to step up performed admirably.
Taking on a heavier load, senior linebacker Aaron Brule had perhaps his best game as a Spartan, notching five tackles, 1.5 TFLs and a sack. There were plenty of solid performances from less experienced players across the banged-up defensive line. Redshirt freshman defensive tackle Derrick Harmon and redshirt sophomore defensive end Avery Dunn each earned a TFL and combined for five solo tackles (Dunn also had a quarterback hurry).
In summation, Tucker’s team finally demonstrated that “next man up” is more than a nice soundbite.
Tucker has some solid wins under his belt, no doubt about it. The 27-24 upset in Ann Arbor during his first year in 2020 comes to mind. MSU’s 38-17 road win against Miami last year has to rank as one of the better victories as well, even if the Hurricanes weren’t especially great by the end of the season. And, of course, the 37-33 victory over No. 3 Michigan a year ago is the obvious choice.
Those wins were part of the build, proving that Michigan State was on an upward trajectory. Saturday’s upset over Illinois was an entirely different type of win but it was just as important — it reaffirmed that Tucker still has some coaching chops. It proved that the program has a foundation that can hold up under pressure.
Now, we don’t know just how strong that foundation is. There’s still three games left in the season and nobody knows what the future holds for Tucker’s Spartans. But MSU’s win against the Fighting Illini proved that the team — and Tucker — still have some fight left in them.
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