When Michigan State head coach Mel Tucker arrived in East Lansing in late-February 2020, he knew there was work to be done.
A COVID-19-shortened 2020 season left Michigan State with much to be desired. In the opening week, MSU had seven turnovers against Rutgers in a loss. In the next week, the Spartans upset rival Michigan in Ann Arbor.
Tucker’s two wins in his first year were impressive: two ranked wins against No. 13 Michigan and No. 8 Northwestern. But Michigan State finished the 2020 campaign with just a 2-5 record.
In the offseason, Tucker went to the transfer portal. He brought in a hell of a star in running back Kenneth Walker III, out of Wake Forest. He brought in 18 or so additional transfers, many of whom were scholarship players and and immediately improved Michigan State’s roster.
On the first play of Michigan State’s 2021 season, Kenneth Walker III ran for a 75-yard touchdown. He finished that game with 264 rushing yards and four touchdowns, and immediately became a Michigan State fan favorite. Eventually, Walker would run for 1,636 yards and 18 touchdowns, plus win the Walter Camp Player of the Year and Doak Walker Award. He also scored a record five touchdowns against Michigan.
Kenneth Walker III rushed for 264 yards and four TDs in the win against Northwestern.@MSU_Football pic.twitter.com/9a1llzYNY1— Michigan St. on BTN (@MichiganStOnBTN) September 4, 2021
Michigan State quarterback Payton Thorne was named the starter just before the Spartans’ first game versus the Wildcats. It was his leadership that brought Michigan State to its sixth 11-win season in program history.
There’s no doubt that Payton Thorne will be the guy next season. If he has Jayden Reed back next season, Jalen “Speedy” Nailor, will-be sophomore Keon Coleman and will-be redshirt junior Tre Mosley, this team will have an effective passing attack. Thorne’s ability to step up in clutch moments this season highlights the type of player he can be.
It’s the big-time fourth down conversions against Michigan, ability to convert high-leverage two-point conversions, the awareness and IQ to make mistakes and recognize what he’s doing wrong and needs to fix. In Michigan State’s fourth quarter Peach Bowl comeback victory against Pittsburgh, Thorne says he told Tucker his footwork was “off.” So Tucker told him to “Get your feet right. Fix your footwork and cut it loose. Just start slinging it.” That led to a 21-point fourth quarter and eventual 31-21 victory.
Tucker says that Thorne told him he was out of sync and his footwork was wrong.— The Only Colors (@TheOnlyColors) December 31, 2021
Tucker advised him to "fix his footwork and start slinging it."
The Peach Bowl was indicative of every moment of 2021, the highs and lows. Michigan State’s shockingly quick start against Northwestern and Miami (FL), the unbelievable high of coming back to beat Michigan, then the dreaded low after a heavy loss to Ohio State, and a sweet victory in the Peach Bowl against Pittsburgh.
It would’ve been nice to see a MSU-Pitt matchup that featured Pittsburgh quarterback Kenny Pickett and Michigan State running back Kenneth Walker III, but we didn’t get that matchup, and that’s OK.
In any sense, describing the Spartans’ successful 11-2 season is not easy. The defense wasn’t great, but it was able to hold up in big spots. Against Michigan, the pass defense tightened up, created pressure on Cade McNamara and eventually caused backup J.J. McCarthy to make mistakes. MSU opponents have only scored red zone touchdowns in 49 percent of attempts. The defense deserves more credit than critics have given it.
The high of a Peach Bowl victory may ride through Friday night, of course, when rival Michigan faces off against Georgia in the Orange Bowl semifinal game. Michigan State fans should not have much to worry about since Michigan does not need to be down, or lose, for MSU to be successful. The Spartans’ success is not dependent on Michigan’s failure.
Michigan State’s handle on the rivalry is firm: 10 of the last 14 matchups have resulted in wins for the Spartans. MSU’s victory in 2008 was preceded with six consecutive Michigan wins. Since then, Michigan has only won back-to-back matchups once.
Coach Tucker’s ambitions for this Michigan State football program rise above what he has done this season. It’s not just Peach Bowl or other New Year’s Six bowls. It isn’t even winning a Big Ten championship. In the journey along the way, these items are on the menu. Even with Michigan’s successful season, Ohio State is still the standard in the Big Ten. Tucker is coming for that level of success.
“We’ve made progress, but we’re not where we need to be yet, but we’re going to get there,” Tucker said following MSU’s victory against Pitt on Thursday night.
Michigan State does not need Michigan to be bad to win the Big Ten or go to the College Football Playoff, or even for Ohio State to have a tough year. If Tucker’s plan is successful, MSU will rise to the level of being elite and competing every year.
All season, Michigan State fans have said “Tuck Comin,’” and painted it on the side of buildings, written it on statues, and invented a way of life because of it. Now it’s Tucker who will make believers of us all.