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Spartan Football: 5 Takeaways from win over Michigan

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Mel Tucker got his first win as head coach of the Spartans on Saturday against in-state rival Michigan. Let’s look at some of the takeaways from the game.

Michigan State v Michigan Photo by Nic Antaya/Getty Images

How about that for a bounce back win?

The Spartans marched into Ann Arbor as 21.5 point underdogs and managed to come out with a 27-24 win. It’s Coach Mel Tucker’s first victory as the head coach of the Spartans. Tucker joined current Alabama head coach, and former Spartan head coach, Nick Saban as the only two Spartan coaches to win their first game against Michigan.

There were plenty of points to talk about for the Spartans on Saturday. Freshman wide receiver Ricky White exploded for the Spartans, with eight receptions for a whopping 196 yards and a touchdown. Rocky Lombardi threw for over 300 yards again this week, which is the most by a Spartan quarterback versus the Wolverines since Connor Cook threw 328 yards in 2015. His 323 yards are actually the third most by a Spartan quarterback all-time against Michigan, behind Bill Burke’s 400 yards in 1999, and Connor Cook’s 328 yard in 2015. Antjuan Simmons seemed to be all over the field on defense, notching 11 total tackles and a few key pass breakups.

So, with a day to gather ourselves, let’s take a look at some of the takeaways from Saturday’s victory.

Let Rocky cook

Through the first two weeks of the season, Rocky Lombardi is second in the Big Ten in passing yards with 642, just behind Purdue’s Aidan O’Connell’s 653 yards. Lombardi’s arm has looked good through the first two weeks of the season, and looked VERY good against Michigan. He had a few misses early, coupled with a few drops, but overall, he performed very well.

Lombardi is emerging as the leader Michigan State fans have long been hoping he would be. He’s managing games like the Spartans need him to, picking up crucial third downs, and making good decisions. He and his receivers looked much more connected on Saturday, which is a big step forward from Week One’s loss to Rutgers.

With a running game that’s struggled to produce the first two weeks, the Spartans need to trust Lombardi and let him cook if they want to keep up the winning.

Seven turnovers do, in fact, make it harder to win.

Week One’s loss against Rutgers was a big blow to the Spartans. They looked lost on the field and coughed up the ball seven times in the loss, and the Scarlet Knights capitalized on quite a few of them. Still, the offense managed to score 27 points despite the turnovers. It was a sign that maybe there was something there if the Spartans could just hang onto the ball.

And, as it turns out, there was. The Spartans didn’t turn it over once on Saturday. They didn’t even put the ball on the turf once. The Spartans clearly emphasized holding onto the ball in practice this week and it paid off. Saturday’s game had zero margin for error, and bouncing back by not turning the ball over against a very talented Wolverine defense was very impressive. Coach Tucker and company deserve major credit for that.

So, obviously, keeping turnovers down, or ideally nonexistent, can help the Spartans come away with more and more wins as the season moves on, and maybe steal a few upsets along the way.

Trust the youth.

One somewhat surprising point from these first two weeks has been the success of the younger players the Spartans have given playing time to. True freshman wide receiver Ricky White shredded the Wolverine defense for nearly 200 yards. Freshman running back Jordon Simmons is the leading rusher for the Spartans through two weeks with 98 yards. Freshman center Nick Samac got the start on Saturday with Matt Allen out, and played a solid game in his absence (see block below).

The younger players have stepped up so far for the Spartans, and that should continue through the rest of the season. The Spartans have lots of talented youth on the roster, and with Coach Tucker’s philosophy about week-to-week depth chart changes, there will be plenty of opportunities for them to make an impact. Look for more and more young players to contribute in the next few weeks, with some of them becoming breakout players.

The Defense is on the rise.

One of the takeaways from the Rutgers game was that the defense can be great this year. Although the score didn’t show it, the Spartan defense played a solid first game against the Scarlet Knights. The unit was put into really bad positions with all the turnovers, and as a result couldn’t stop the Scarlet Knights as often as they would’ve liked. They had a great goal line stand on the one-yard-line get negated by a penalty to set up a Rutgers touchdown. But they played remarkably well considering the circumstances.

This week, the Spartans played an excellent game on defense against a Wolverines team that absolutely lit up Minnesota in the opening game. The defensive unit held Michigan to 152 rushing yards after the Wolverines ran for 250 last week. The defense did an excellent job of making the plays it needed to, and outside of one or two penalties, played a great game all around.

The Spartans have quite a few opponents with less talent on the offensive side of the ball coming up on the schedule. If the defense keeps playing at the level it has, there’s no reason the Spartans shouldn’t have a chance to win in any of them.

The Spartans will not back down.

Let’s be real. Next to nobody saw this win coming.

The Wolverines were fresh off a 49-24 victory, and looked to be rolling heading into their game against the Spartans. The Spartans were 21.5 point underdogs at kickoff, after the line had opened at 24 earlier in the week. The Spartans were reeling after losing to Rutgers in a disaster of a game. All the signs pointed to a Michigan blowout win.

But, the Spartans knew better. After the Rutgers loss, many players voiced to Spartan fans that this wasn’t who they knew they could be. Rocky Lombardi knew they were better than their Week One performance.

“We expected it,” Lombardi said of the Spartans upsetting the Wolverines. It’s clear the mentality of the team didn’t change after last week, and why should it? The Spartans clearly were not executing, and when you have seven turnovers, it’s hard to even put up points, let alone win the game. They knew they were better than that, and proved it on Saturday.

The Spartans have been doubted before, and they’ve consistently proved doubters wrong. With this mentality from the team, it will be interesting to see how the rest of the season plays out.

Final Thoughts

Mel Tucker’s first win as the head coach of the Spartans couldn’t have been any better. The Spartans bounced back hard from Week One and had a complete win over their in-state rival. Coach Tucker became the first coach in Michigan State program history to beat the Wolverines as the first win of their career.

The Spartans have the pieces to make some noise this season. They may not beat Ohio State, but if MSU keeps it rolling, this team can certainly send a big message to the Big Ten for 2021. The Spartans won’t back down, and they’re not having any of this “rebuild” stuff either.

This should be a fun season.