It’s no secret that Michigan State’s defense has been depleted recently. With eight defensive players suspended and no return in sight and recurring injuries to key players, the Spartans have been severely limited in their ability to practice.
Head Coach Mel Tucker said that this week will be the fourth week where they aren’t able to hit at practice due to the lack of available players.
“One of the challenges that we've had is that we don't hit,” Tucker said. “The only day we have contact, that we hit with pads, is on game day. It’s been like that the last three weeks because we don’t have enough guys to practice and we don’t have enough healthy bodies.”
The inability to go full speed at practice has forced defensive players to find new ways to stay sharp. Redshirt sophomore linebacker Cal Haladay, who was recently named Big Ten Defensive Player of the Week two weeks in a row, spoke to how the difference has affected the defense.
“You just gotta focus and take every rep for what it is and make sure you’re doing everything perfect because it is gonna be a little different,” Haladay said.
In addition to staying physically sharp, Haladay also spoke to the importance of remaining mentally sharp during game day preparation, despite not being able to go full speed during practice the week before.
“Also, mental reps, make sure your mind is sharp,” Haladay said. “That’s actually big too. When you’re not actually out there taking the reps or walking through the reps, those still count and take advantage of all those reps you get.”
Although Saturday’s game against Penn State will serve as MSU’s last regular season game, the Spartans are well aware of what’s at stake this weekend. They currently stand at 5-6 and are in need of one more win to achieve bowl eligibility.
Despite this, Tucker remains focused solely on winning, not even mentioning achieving bowl eligibility in his opening statement during his Monday press conference. His only comment on the subject came when he was asked if he purposely avoided the topic.
“We all know what's at stake and the players know that as well, so I don't think there's any reason to continue to harp on that, Tucker said. “That's really talking about the end result and what we really need to focus on as a program as to what players and coaches need to do, you know, every single day to prepare for that opportunity.”
Now, with the stakes as high as they’ve been this season, the Spartans find themselves deep in preparation for their upcoming opponent with bowl eligibility on the line, yet unable to hit at practice for the fourth week in a row.
If this is the fourth week, the first week without hitting at practice would have taken place following the suspension of eight defensive players after the tunnel incident at Michigan Stadium.
According to Tucker, this is an incredibly rare situation.
“There were some times where you know where we have certain days that we normally would hit, we normally have contact where we didn't have, but typically not the whole week, and certainly not three weeks in a row and this is going to be week four for that,” Tucker said.
With one more chance to achieve bowl eligibility and end the season on a high note, the Spartans will have to overcome their lack of depth and draw strength from previous experience so that they’re ready to full speed come Saturday.
Kickoff from Happy Valley is set for 4 p.m. on Fox Sports 1.
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