Mel Tucker’s Michigan State coaching debut ended in disappointment after getting upset at home by the Rutgers Scarlet Knights. But Tucker, and the Michigan State players, are not discouraged. In fact, they’re fired up for the rivalry game with the Michigan Wolverines this weekend.
Starting quarterback Rocky Lombardi and linebacker Antjuan Simmons, along with Tucker, met with the media today and the rivalry was obviously a key focus of the conversation.
“This is a huge game for us,” Lombardi said. “Everybody knows that it’s is a huge game for our program, but ultimately we try to prepare as well as we can for every game. It’s not like we don’t prepare to the best of our abilities every week, week in and week out. But I’m definitely not downplaying the importance of this game for us and our program. This is a big deal for us. We’re gonna go out and give it our best shot.”
Lombardi is taking his leadership role to the next level this week, and putting the responsibility on himself — and the other leaders of the team — of relaying the importance of this rivalry game and what it means to the program to the rest of team.
“Antjuan (Simmons) and I talked to the freshmen yesterday about how important this rivalry is to us, to the state, to the program, you know this is gonna be something that everybody is gonna be talking about for the next 365 days or however long it is until we play next,” Lombardi said. “It’s definitely a big deal for us to make sure everybody understands that this is not just another game. This is a big game for us, this is a big game for Coach Tuck, this is a big game for our program.”
Lombardi is obviously excited to finally get his chance to start against the Wolverines. He also likes how Tucker has embraced the rivalry and put an emphasis on the game.
MSU quarterback Rocky Lombardi meeting with the media.— Ryan O'Bleness (@ryanobleness) October 27, 2020
“Coach Tucker understands the importance of this rivalry,” Lombardi says of the Michigan State vs. Michigan game.
“Coach Tucker has been here before, he understands the importance of this rivalry,” Lombardi said. “He understands the feelings we have toward each other — Michigan and Michigan State I mean. He’s no stranger to this rivalry. He understands the importance of this game and he let us know that he understands that because obviously all the players that have played in this game before feel the rivalry, we understand what’s going on.”
Coach Tucker is indeed fired up for his game. Tucker is embracing the rivalry, and he is putting an emphasis on this game in a similar fashion that Mark Dantonio did.
“This is a game against the school down the road. It’s not just another game. It’s a special game.”— Ryan O'Bleness (@ryanobleness) October 27, 2020
“I’ve been looking forward to this call all week,” Tucker said to the media with a smile. “Obviously, this is a game against the school down the road, it’s not just another game. It’s really special to me, it’s special to our players, it’s very important to our coaches, to our former players, to our fans and to the people who stay in Michigan. It’s a special game and we treat it as such.”
Tucker — who took the Ohio State route today of not saying the word “Michigan” — knows this is going to be a “physical game,” perhaps the most physical game his team will play all season. MSU’s focuses this week are to be physical, be fundamentally sound and of course, after last week’s debacle with seven turnovers, take care of the football.
While he may be in his first year as head coach at Michigan State, he is certainly familiar with the rivalry, and he’s been well aware of it since he played college football in the Big Ten.
“Playing at Wisconsin, you’re aware of the rivalries in the Big Ten, and always Michigan/Michigan State has been a huge one,” Tucker said. “Being here (at Michigan State) as a graduate assistant in ‘97 and ’98, I was really able to experience that first hand and just feel the passion and the energy. There’s not a day that goes by where you don’t hear about this game from someone in one way, shape or form. So, it’s certainly not just a game. That’s what makes college football special are these types of rivalries, and that’s what makes it special to be here at State.”
Now Tucker gets a chance to put their staple on the rivalry, and the preparation for the game. The coaching staff and players have put an extraordinary amount of effort into getting into the mindset that this more than just a regular game.
MSU is doing things in-house to remind players the importance of this rivalry and what this game means for MSU with the Paul Bunyan trophy. Focusing on the history of the rivalry.— Ryan O'Bleness (@ryanobleness) October 27, 2020
“Every day we’re doing something different to emphasize the importance of the game,” Tucker says.
“We’re doing some things in-house here to emphasize what this game means, in terms of educating our player, reminding our players what’s at stake — the Paul Bunyan Trophy,” Tucker said. “We have some coaches on our staff that have played in this game, and (we’re) just talking about the history of the game. We’ve showed guys videos, just framing it up for them, just putting it in perspective of not only what this game means now, but what it has always meant for us here at Michigan State. We’re treating it special, and we’re putting an emphasis on it...every day we’re doing a little something different to really emphasize the importance of the game.”
After watching the Rutgers film, and evaluating what needs to be corrected, and putting a plan in place to make those corrections, Tucker and the team are now fully locked into the Wolverines. While the Rutgers loss was disappointing, Tucker says it is always the “24-hour rule” win, or lose, and the team is now laser-focused on Michigan.
Still, Tucker knows that the fans were not happy with last week’s performance against the Scarlet Knights, and he understands that, and knows those feelings are warranted.
“That’s to be expected,” Tucker said of the criticism following the game. “When you don’t have success, there’s disappointment — there’s disappointment from the coaching staff, there’s disappointment on the player side of it, and then the fans and everyone involved. “The expectation is to have success and do that on a consistent basis. We go to the truth and understand why were we were not able to have the success on the field that we expected. Why were we not able to play up to that standard?
“And the answer obviously is turnovers —we talked about the turnover margin being the number one determining factor in winning and losing, college and pro — you turn the ball over seven times, you just really don’t give yourself a chance to win. And also we had too many penalties...you look at those things and you say ‘these are the reasons we weren’t successful,’ then you look to get them fixed and you move on. I do feel the disappointment, but it’s important for me as a head coach and a leader to move on and turn the page. We’ll learn from it.”
Tucker was also asked about his relationship with Michigan head coach Jim Harbaugh. While the two have not crossed paths often, they are obviously familiar with each other and coached against each other in the NFL. Tucker obviously has a lot of respect for his peer.
“I’ve met Jim,” Tucker said. “I’ve actually coached against him at least once — I believe when I was in Chicago (as defensive coordinator for the Bears) and he was in San Fran(cisco) as a head coach, we were able to match up,” Tucker said. “I actually know his brother (John Harbaugh) better than I know him. But I know that he is a fantastic coach and he’s a football guy, comes from a football family. Obviously I have a respect for all of the coaches in our conference and all of the coaches that I get a chance to compete against.”
Antjuan Simmons shares the sentiments from Tucker and Lomabrdi about the rivalry. But for Simmons, who hails from Ann Arbor, this game means just a little bit more and he is extra motivated.
Simmons, who is from Ann Arbor, says he’s extra motivated to “go harder” this week against Michigan. Played high school ball basically right across the street from Michigan Stadium.— Ryan O'Bleness (@ryanobleness) October 27, 2020
“I’m playing right across the street from my high school,” Simmons said. “I know a lot of people back in Ann Arbor. It definitely makes me want to go a little harder, put a little bit extra into it this week.”
As mentioned, Simmons and Lombardi met with the freshmen. Simmons gave a little more insight into how that discussion went. While the freshmen already understood the rivalry at least somewhat, and weren’t totally surprised by it, Simmons and Lombardi wanted to prepare them for what to expect.
Antjuan Simmons up now. He says he and Rocky Lombardi met with the freshmen to explain what this rivalry game means. The freshmen listened intently and asked questions, but most were already well aware of the importance of the rivalry.— Ryan O'Bleness (@ryanobleness) October 27, 2020
“What we did was just tell them what this game means to the program, what this game means to us as individuals, things we’ve been through, the things that comes with this rivalry, the things that comes afterward, just everything,” Simmons said. “Just trying to catch them up, trying to make sure they understand what they’re getting into. This is a trophy game, this game holds more weight. It means a lot to this program, it means a lot to (Michigan), so both programs are gonna bring it.”
While on this looks like a difficult game for the Spartans on paper, the coaches and players are embracing the rivalry and look forward to the matchup with the Wolverines.