The Mel Tucker era officially began in East Lansing on Saturday, but not in the way the Spartans were hoping.
The Rutgers Scarlet Knights marched into Spartan Stadium and stole a win from Coach Tucker and company, winning 38-27. It’s the Scarlet Knights’ first win against the Spartans since 2004 (ironically during Coach Greg Schiano’s first stint with the Scarlet Knights), and their first against MSU since joining the Big Ten Conference. It was an ugly loss, with the Spartans giving up seven turnovers, not including the two failed fourth down conversions.
But with Michigan looming next week, let’s take a moment to look at some of the takeaways from this week’s loss.
Ball Security. Ball Security. Ball Security.
The Spartans struggled to hold onto the ball against the Scarlet Knights, turning it over seven times, not even counting their failed fourth down attempts. As a result, the Scarlet Knights took advantage and continued to score on the Spartans.
Despite their turnovers, the Spartans managed to score 27 points, which is considerably higher than most teams could score when they’ve turned it over that many times. Maryland only turned the ball over four times in their loss, but only put up a field goal on their way to a 43-3 loss. The Spartans could move the ball when they weren’t dropping it, and if the fumble problem is fixed, could turn out to have an improved offense from the previous few years.
The test of Mel Tucker’s coaching ability will be next week with Michigan. If the Spartans can turn it around this week and hold onto the ball against the Wolverines’ defense that is known for forcing turnovers, the Spartans could hang in there against a formidable opponent.
The Running Game Needs Work
One let down this week for the Spartans was their running game. Running back Elijah Collins was the leading returning rusher for the Big Ten Conference, finishing last season just 12 yards short of the 1,000 mark. With a new staff and a new system, the Spartans were poised for a breakout year on the ground.
But that was not at all close to what we saw against the Scarlet Knights. The Spartans only managed to rack up 60 yards on the ground, with freshman running back Jordon Simmons finishing as the leading rusher with 43 yards. Collins didn’t start, with Connor Heyward getting the job instead. In fact, Collins finished with nine carries for a total of three yards.
The offensive line struggled to get enough of a push against the Scarlet Knights’ defensive line, who looked vastly improved from a year ago with their new additions. Moving forward, the line needs to open up holes for the Spartans to run through. The unit showed signs of it today, but it takes more than flashes of success to actually generate it.
The Spartans had to start passing more late in the game, as it was getting more and more out of reach. Look for MSU to try and establish the run early next week against Michigan, and in the future, as the Spartans move through the schedule.
Defense Could Have a Great Season
I know looking at the score, you’re probably laughing at that statement, but the Spartans could really have a great year in 2020.
The defense got put in quite a few bad situations early. That first drive was a bit sluggish for them, but that’s usually how it goes in your first game of the season. They came back and forced a punt after the Jayden Reed fumble set the Scarlet Knights up with good field position. But then, Rocky Lombardi was hit from behind and the ball fell into the Scarlet Knights’ hands at the Spartan one-yard-line. Even then, the Spartans nearly held on for a goal line stand, but a pass interference penalty kept the Scarlet Knights alive, allowing Rutgers a new opportunity to score.
The defensive unit only had a short field to work with most of the time. The Scarlet Knights’ average starting field position was their own 44-yard-line. The defense only allowed 276 total yards of offense, which could’ve been considerably worse considering the seven turnovers. The Spartans also forced three turnovers themselves, which potentially saved them from an even worse loss.
With a big game this week against a good Michigan team, the defense is going to be put to the test. If the Spartans aren’t having to defend at their own goal line to start every drive, the defense could do well enough to keep the Spartans in a position to stay competitive in the future.
Saturday’s loss to the Scarlet Knights felt like a dagger for the Spartans. Losing to a team that hadn’t won a conference game since 2017, and one that’s considered the lowest of the low in the conference, was not a good way to start the Mel Tucker era. Especially so with a game against Michigan in week two. Realistically, the Spartans weren’t going to compete for the East Division crown this year, but a winnable game against a lesser opponent should’ve gotten the Spartans in the win column.
But, it didn’t work out that way. The good news is that the Spartans now have something to work with. They have fixable problems they can now focus on and work t correct. The coaches and players have game film to tear apart and seven more games to try and get it right. It’s time to burn that loss and move on, starting with Michigan.