Michigan State University got a key bounce-back win over the Maryland Terrapins on Saturday night to improve its record to 9-1. Following the big win, head coach Mel Tucker and several players addressed the media in the postgame press conference.
Coach Tucker opened the session by praising his team’s preparation, effort, and focus both during the week and over the course of the game.
“The preparation during the week was outstanding,” Tucker said. “It was a relentless effort...guys really dug in this week and made a conscious effort to get better...and we got the end result that we wanted.”
The Anatomy of a Bounce Back
Last week, the Spartan pass defense was torched for over 500 yards by the Purdue Boilermakers. Many pundits expected the pass-happy Maryland offense to put up similar numbers on Michigan State this week.
While the Terrapins did post 350 yards through the air, the Spartan defense was stout. The Green and White forced four Maryland punts, a missed field goal, and three consecutive turnovers on downs to end the game.
So how did the Spartans do it? First of all, Coach Tucker credited his team’s toughness.
“I admire the way our guys play, and I respect the way they play,” Tucker said. “They do play with effort and they do play with mental and physical toughness.”
Second, Coach Tucker cited his team’s process and how his team knows what to do, how to do it and why it is important to do things a certain way.
Third, the Spartans put in extra effort this week in order to correct the mistakes that were made at Purdue.
“The players really stepped up,” Tucker said. “They did a lot of extra work in the evenings, after class, and between classes.”
Senior safety Xavier Henderson echoed these comments and added a bit more detail.
“We put so much time into the film room,” Henderson said. “Guys were coming in at 7 and 8 p.m. to watch film, to watch third downs and to see how to get better.”
The emphasis on third-down plays seems to have worked. The Spartans held Maryland to just three conversions on 13 attempts on third down, and just two conversions on five attempts on fourth down. In addition, blocking and tackling on the edge was also a point of emphasis.
“Coach Tucker always says that if you see wideouts blocking and corners tackling, that’s the sign of a good football team,” Henderson said.
Finally, the bounce back was also largely due to the outstanding play of several of Michigan State’s stars, including sophomore quarterback Payton Thorne, junior receiver Jayden Reed and junior tailback Kenneth Walker, III.
Thorne and Reed mainly discussed how the game plan through the air was to attack quickly. Meanwhile, for Walker, a bit more patience was required.
“We knew that they were going to have the extra men in the box,” Walker said of Maryland. “So we prepared for that and Coach Tucker talked about how it was going to be one-or-two-yard runs. So I just had to trust it, and then we did some adjustments and I feel like some things started to break out.”
These adjustments seem to have worked. The Heisman Trophy front-runner racked up a total of 143 yards on 30 carries, the bulk of which came in the second half, and two touchdowns. As for Walker’s thoughts on his Heisman candidacy, he remains humble.
“I don’t feel any pressure, really,” Walker said. “I’m not really focused on the Heisman and things like that. I’m just focused on us winning together.”
This attitude seems to also reflect that of the team as a whole and of the Michigan State head coach.
“This is a team that is not entitled,” Tucker said. “Everything that we’ve gotten to this point we’ve earned.”
About Those Rankings...
Following the loss to Purdue last week, the Spartans dropped in the College Football Playoff Rankings from No. 3 down to No. 7. Most notably, Michigan State also dropped a spot behind the Michigan Wolverines, despite the Spartans’ head-to-head win over their arch-rivals in late October.
When asked directly if this potential snub was also a motivating factor for the Spartans this week, Coach Tucker downplayed the impact.
“It didn’t have anything to do with anything,” Tucker said. “It didn’t have anything to do with our preparation, and it didn’t have anything to do with our mindset. Just nothing.”
But, based on the players’ response to a similar question, it might have been in the back of their minds.
“I wouldn’t really say that we were too motivated by it,” Thorne said. “(But) I’m not going to say that we didn’t recognize it or that we weren’t aware of it. Obviously we know what we were ranked. Were we happy about it? No.
“But at the same time, I feel like things are going to work themselves out,” Thorne continued. “We’ve got two big games left on our schedule. If we just focus on winning the games in front of us, we’ll be putting ourselves in a good enough situation...we are just trying to control what we can control.”
Next Man Up
As the season rolls on into November, injuries on the Spartan roster are starting to pile up.
“There are not a lot of guys right now in college or pro that are 100 percent this time of year,” Tucker said.
Coach Tucker made it very clear that his staff has the backups ready to play, when needed.
“Next man up — if you are in the game, you’re a starter,” Tucker said. “It doesn’t matter if you are a freshman or a senior. We are going to put you in the game and we are going to have confidence in you to get the job done.
“Everyone has a role,” Tucker added later. “Every role is significant. Whether you’re playing or not.”
One of the key examples of this “next man up” mentality was the play of senior linebacker Noah Harvey, who got his first start of the year due to an apparent injury to junior linebacker Quavaris Crouch.
Harvey made a key interception on the goal line to end Maryland’s first possession of the second half. What was even more impressive was that this interception came just one play after Harvey committed pass interference, which led to the Terrapins getting the ball inside the Michigan State 20-yard-line. Tucker explained the process as follows:
“That’s all about playing the next play,” Tucker said. “It’s the cycle of a play. The play comes in, you review your assignment, play the play, you evaluate it as good or bad, then you get to neutral, and you move on to the next one.
“That’s what you have to do,” Tucker continued. “Everything’s not always going to go your way, but you keep playing the play. You focus on what you have to do and you execute.”
Xavier Henderson was also excited to see his teammate succeed.
“I can’t really explain how happy I was for Noah (Harvey),” Henderson said. “He put so much work into his game and into this team. His play on special teams last week got him to be a captain this week, and then he got the call to start.
“That goes to show the kind of leader that he is. After getting that (pass interference call), to come right back and make a big play like that, I was really happy for him...because he gives so much to this program.”
Next Team Up
With the Maryland game now in the rear-view mirror, the Ohio State Buckeyes are now on the clock. The Spartans will travel to Columbus next weekend, as will ESPN’s College Football Gameday crew, with the Big Ten East title potentially on the line. The players are clearly excited for the opportunity to play in another big game.
Here is a list of quotes from several players on the looming matchup with the Buckeyes:
- “In order to get to Indy you’ve got to go through Columbus,” Thorne said.
- “There’s a new opportunity every week,” Reed said. “Every week you’ve got to respect your opponent, and I think that goes both ways.”
- “I don’t remember the last time I played in a game like that to be honest, but we know (Ohio State is) a great team,” Walker said. “I know next week we’ll go look at the film and (see our) mistakes and then get prepared for them.”
- “I have played in big games, but I don’t think I’ve played in a game with so much on the line,” Henderson said. “We know how good Ohio State is. But we’re gonna watch the film. We’re gonna see what we see...we’re gonna work our tails off to go out there and compete.”
But, Coach Tucker simply emphasized that the Spartans’ need to continue to follow the same game plan that they have had since the beginning.
“We have a process. We do what we do,” Tucker said. “We have the 24-hour rule and then we’ll get ready for the next one. It’s November and we know what’s at stake.”
Odds and Ends
The press conference also had a few light-hearted moments. The first was when quarterback Payton Thorne was asked about his potential touchdown-saving tackle following his interception on the final play of the first half.
“I wish I didn’t have to make a tackle tonight, or ever” Thorne said. “But maybe they’ll put me out there on special teams next week.”
But the most entertaining segment was when sophomore nickelback and graphic design major Darius Snow was asked to comment on the neon jerseys.
“I love them, especially with the dark green pants and the little color rush going on there,” Snow said. “I’ve loved them ever since I first tried them on as a recruit, and I love them now.
“Any negative criticism goes in my left ear and out my right ear. It will always be that way...I believe (the font) is making a statement. STATE-ment...I love everything about them.”
Ladies and gentlemen, the expert has spoken.
Check out the full video of each interview below.