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Michigan State head coach Mel Tucker: “I know our fans expect more from this football team than what we showed today”

Tucker’s Spartans fell to the Rutgers Scarlet Knights in his coaching debut for Michigan State.

Rutgers v Michigan State Photo by Quinn Harris/Getty Images

The Michigan State Spartans lost in humiliating fashion to the Rutgers Scarlet Knights — a program MSU had never lost to in Big Ten Conference play prior to today — by a final score of 38-27.

The victory for Rutgers this afternoon broke a lot of streaks. Entering Saturday’s contest, the Spartans were 6-0 against the Scarlet Knights since 2014, and Rutgers had a 21-game losing streak in Big Ten Conference play overall. Both of those streaks are now over. Michigan State’s streak of 21-straight opening game victories is now snapped as well.

First-year Michigan State head football coach Mel Tucker was obviously disappointed with the result. He met with the media after the game.

“I know our fans expect more from this football team than what we showed today, and we expect more out of ourselves,” Tucker said. “There’s a higher standard. We’ve got work to do. We’re gonna watch the tape — we’ve got a lot of corrections we need to make, and we’ll make those corrections. You usually make the most improvement between your first and your second game, and we got a big game, we got Michigan next week. We’ll control what we can control and continue to move forward. This is the beginning, this is not the end, and this is a process.”

The underlying takeaway from today’s game is turnovers. Michigan State turned it over seven times (including five lost fumbles), compared to three for Rutgers. That is inexcusable. Tucker and the Michigan State staff preaches the importance of ball security and turnover margin to their team. That did not show up today.

“Those were disappointing, obviously,” Tucker said about the high amount of turnovers. “Turnover margin is the largest determining factor in winning and losing games, college and pro. We talk about it all the time — ‘the ball, the ball, the ball.’ Taking care of the football and taking the ball away on defense.

“You turn the ball over seven times, it’s gonna be tough to beat anyone — you’re not gonna be able to beat good teams, you’re not gonna be able to beat any teams when you do that,” Tucker added. “I also would like to give Greg Schiano and Rutgers, give them credit. Give them credit where credit is due. They did what they had to do. They made enough plays, they played hard for 60 minutes and they out-executed us. I was disappointed, and we’re all disappointed, but those are all things that are correctable. So, we’ll go back to the drawing board.”

Tucker also noted that Michigan State actually starts every single practice with ball security drills, and grades them. The coaching staff will be looking for new ways to drive that point home this week, and put even more emphasis on those drills.

While Tucker was clearly hoping for a different result, and the turnovers completely changed the result of the game, Tucker liked the fight he saw in his team and the mental makeup of the players despite all of the in-game adversity.

“There was energy, there was fire, there was want to on the field, on the sideline and in the locker room after the game,” Tucker said. “There was passion, there was desire, and there is a football character about this team that I do appreciate. They take coaching, they work hard, and when you do those types of things, good things are going to happen.

“We have to stay with our process, we have to correct our mistakes,” Tucker added “Because our guys are coachable — we respect them, they respect our staff — we will be able to make those corrections and we’ll be able to improve. That’s gonna start right away, and our guys understand that. I’m looking forward to watching this film, seeing where we need to improve, making those corrections and getting ready for Michigan.”

After months of speculation, we finally got our answer on who will start at quarterback for Michigan State, at least early on in the season. Tucker, offensive coordinator Jay Johnson and the rest of the Michigan State staff decided to start redshirt junior quarterback Rocky Lombardi.

While fans had to wait until kickoff to find out, Lombardi — who had an up and down day — said he found out that he was getting the nod earlier in the week. Tucker was asked about Lombardi’s performance, and asked about the lack of success in the run game.

“Offensively, our philosophy is we want to be able to run the ball on our terms, and we weren’t able to do that today,” Tucker said. “That makes it tough because when you’re somewhat one-dimensional, it’s hard to be successful. I thought Rocky did some good things out there. If you look at his stats — 31 (completions) for 44 (attempts), 319 (yards), three touchdowns — that’s pretty good production. I know there was a turnover early in the game, but we’ll have to watch the film, I think there was some miscommunication there. And obviously at the end, he’s trying to make a play.

“I think he showed really good leadership in this game. He continued to play the next play. He played tough, he played physical and he continued to fight. He’s gonna continue to improve. We’re gonna coach him just like we coach the rest of these guys on some of the mistakes they made. We’ll work to get better this week.”

One of the more interesting decisions from Tucker and the Michigan State staff was to go for it on fourth-down-and-three at Rutgers’ 21-yard-line deep into the third quarter. This call was followed by a fumble recovery by the Spartans after Drew Beesly sacked Noah Vedral, the quarterback for the Scarlet Knights. The Spartans ran the ball on four straight plays and turned the ball over on downs, coming just short of moving the chains.

Michigan State was aggressive on fourth down all game long, going two-for-four in those situations throughout the game. However, in this particular instance, a chip shot field goal would have cut the lead to just five points with plenty of time to play. So why didn’t Tucker opt to take the points?

“We were just looking to be aggressive,” Tucker said. “We thought that was something that we could convert. We missed a fourth down early in the game, but we came back on another fourth down and scored a touchdown. So, we were still down a couple scores, so going for it on fourth down when you have one, two or three yards to go is not unusual in this day and age of football, especially when you’re trying to be aggressive, you’re trying to score points. So, we just wanted to be aggressive, and it didn’t work out for us.”

One other thing that stood out in MSU’s loss was the poor play of the offensive line. This has been an issue for the Spartans for several seasons in a row now. Tucker said that he needs to look at the film, but gave some initial thoughts on the play in the trenches:

“Overall, just looking at it, it didn’t look like we were able to control the line of scrimmage like we need to,” Tucker said. “In order for us to have the type of offense we need to have, the type of balance we need to have, we have to be efficient running the ball — whether it’s on the perimeter or inside. So we’ll take a hard look at that.”

Michigan State will have an even tougher test next week against the arch rival Michigan Wolverines. Hopefully the Spartans are able to make these corrections or that one could get ugly quickly.