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Notes & Quotes: Following ugly loss, “It’s all about what’s next” for Michigan State and Mel Tucker

After a poor performance on the field against Michigan, and a much worse postgame incident, the Spartans will try to move forward.

Syndication: Detroit Free Press Kirthmon F. Dozier / USA TODAY NETWORK

The Michigan State Spartans were soundly defeated by the No. 4-ranked Michigan Wolverines on Saturday by a final score of 29-7. After Michigan State won the previous two meetings, the Paul Bunyan Trophy is now back in Ann Arbor for at least the next year.

However, Saturday’s game may be more remembered for what happened after the game instead of during it. Following the end of the contest, there was a scuffle in the tunnel near the locker rooms.

Matt Charboneau of the Detroit News posted a video clip to Twitter showing the situation. It is unclear what prompted this, but several Michigan State players appear to be pushing, hitting and/or kicking a Michigan player identified to be sophomore defensive back Ja’Den McBurrows. Police have launched an investigation into the incident.

Michigan State head coach Mel Tucker was asked about the fight in the tunnel at his postgame press conference, but he did not how it started or why it happened. He does plan to find out.

“I don’t know (what happened),” Tucker said about the fight. “I know it was it heated game. Things were heated. We were tying to get our guys to the locker room. We’ll have to see what happened.

“Listen, I don’t know what happened (with the fight in the tunnel)...I did not address that (with the team in the locker room) because I didn’t have anything to address, because I don’t know what happened. We have to figure that out.”

As for the game itself, Tucker, offensive coordinator Jay Johnson and others on the coaching staff had their play-calling come into question throughout the contest.

Michigan State converted just one time on four attempts on fourth down throughout the night. One of the fourth-down failures included a play in which Michigan State running back Elijah Collins was initially called to have reached the line of gain, but was then overturned upon a review from the officials. Another missed fourth-down-and-short opportunity happened deep in Michigan territory at the Wolverines’ 5-yard line.

Tucker was asked about the fourth-down play-calling, and the decision to go for it in those situations. He said that he and Johnson had talked about the options together and agreed upon the plays in those scenarios. He also said the players had a “snap count issue,” which ruined the timing of the fourth-down play deep in the red zone.

“Fourth-and-one was a go for us,” Tucker said. “We thought we had it and then they reviewed and said we didn’t have it. And fourth-down-and-one in the red zone, on the goal line, was a go for us as well.

“We talk about the different options (with play calls),” Tucker said about how he and Johnson decided on which play to run. “We had a really good play call. We had a snap count issue, so all the guys didn’t come off of the ball at the same time.”

While the head-scratching coaching decisions were discussed heavily by fans and pundits, Tucker believes MSU’s issues on Saturday were more related to execution on the field. Tucker also noted that MSU lost both of its guards during the game (unclear if he was referring to starters Matt Carrick and J.D. Duplain, or one of Carrick and Duplain along with rotational guard Brian Greene), which affected the offensive line’s rhythm and play.

“(We’re) just not executing,” Tucker said. “We lost a couple guys, we lost both our guards, so we had some issues on the (offensive) line.

“I believe it’s (an) execution (issue), no doubt about it,” Tucker later added.

Tucker often talks about playing a full 60 minutes of football, and complementary football between offense, defense and special teams. The Spartans were unable to do that under the lights on Saturday night against the Wolverines.

“We need to play a full 60 (minutes), and we didn’t do it,” Tucker said. “I’m very disappointed, and so are the players. But we’re gonna come back tomorrow, get back to work, be ready for Illinois (next week).”

Michigan State’s offense really struggled, particularly in the second half. The Spartans accumulated just 252 total yards (compared to 443 for Michigan), and of course scored just seven points. Additionally, UM dominated time of possession by a tally of 40:33-19:27.

One of the few bright spots for Michigan State’s offense on the day was wide receiver Keon Coleman. He recorded five catches for 155 yards and a touchdown. Tucker and the coaching staff knew this was a matchup in which Michigan State may have been able to exploit the Michigan defense.

“We knew they were gonna have a hard time covering our guys,” Tucker said when asked about Coleman’s performance.

As for the mood in the Michigan State locker room following the defeat at the hands of the program’s most bitter rival, Tucker said the players were “very disappointed, as you could imagine.”

Tucker’s message to the team after the game was clear and honest: Michigan was the better team on Saturday, but put it behind you and get prepared for the next one, a road matchup at Illinois.

“I said (to the team), ‘Hey, just give (Michigan) credit, they beat us today. They played better football than us today, and we didn’t get it done. Give them credit, let’s get ready to move on to the next one,’” Tucker explained.

Tucker was fairly happy with the way Michigan State defended in the red zone, often limiting Michigan to three points instead of six.

“The kids played hard,” Tucker said. “We bowed up in the red zone and that’s what we need to do, keep them to lower numbers.”

While Michigan State’s defense did an admirable job against Michigan’s offense — holding quarterback J.J. McCarthy to 167 passing yards, while keeping the Wolverines out of the end zone for the most part and forcing field goals — MSU had its struggles defending the run.

The Wolverines gashed the Spartans for 276 rushing yards. Running back Blake Corum had 33 rushes for 177 yards (5.4 yards per carry) and two total touchdowns (one rushing, one receiving).

While Tucker thought his guys played hard, and he was pleased with the red zone defense, he was not too thrilled with Michigan’s success on the ground.

“We need to do a better job setting the edge (in the run game) and wrapping up tackles,” Tucker said. “They didn’t get the big explosive (plays), what they live on, but I was not pleased with how we set the edge at times. They had the ball quite a bit.”

Another issue for the Spartans on Saturday night was penalties. Michigan State amassed seven penalties for 75 yards. Penalties were particularly an issue on MSU’s first drive, which had a promising beginning after a seven-yard run from running back Jalen Berger and a 17-yard rush on a reverse from wide receiver Jayden Reed. An unsportsmanlike conduct call on left tackle Jarret Horst and a false start penalty on right guard Matt Carrick pushed the Spartans back. Two more flags were thrown on the drive, but one of those was not accepted.

Tucker knew the impact those fouls had on MSU’s opening drive, and it set the tone for things to come.

“Yeah, that killed our momentum, killed the drive, absolutely,” Tucker said about the penalties. “We have to go back and look. We were playing hard, trying to play through the whistle...We need to be more disciplined.”

The overall sentiment from Tucker was that he and the team were extremely disappointed in Saturday’s outcome, but the Spartans have to focus on what comes next in order to keep the season afloat.

“Right now, it’s all about what’s next,” Tucker said. “We’re gonna look at the film and then we’re gonna move on to the next game. I’m very disappointed (in the loss to Michigan).”

Fifth-year senior safety Xavier Henderson and senior linebacker/defensive end Jacoby Windmon also spoke to the media after the game.

When asked about MSU’s defensive success in the red zone, Henderson said he thought the Spartans were able to bring down the ball carriers better in the red zone, but were plagued by poor tackling in other parts of the field.

“I think we tackled better in the red zone, that’s probably the main thing we did poorly (overall), was our tackling,” Henderson said. “Hats off to (Blake) Corum, he ran hard, but we didn’t tackle well enough.”

As for if the Michigan State sideline ever felt like the game was out of reach, that was never the case, according to Henderson.

“It never really felt like (we were out of it),” Henderson said. “We got stops in the red zone, but that wasn’t good enough. We need to play better on the field, but we always felt like we were in the game.”

As for Windmon, playing in the rivalry game for the first time, he reflected on what it was like to participate in the contest.

“Just a violent game, just playing football,” Windmon said about Saturday’s affair. “It’s a rivalry game, so you know there’s gonna be a lot of talking back and forth, but from our side, there wasn’t too much talking, just a lot of playing football.”

Henderson, now a fifth-year senior, has been around the Michigan State versus Michigan rivalry for some time now. He thinks being able to play in this series has made him better, both on the field and off, and he is hoping the younger players learn about how special it is to be able to play in this rivalry.

“This being my fifth year, I get my butt whopped so many times, but it’s made me a better person and better player now (playing in this rivalry), and I hope the younger people can see that,” Henderson said.

Looking at the full picture, Henderson knows football is a hard game and Michigan is a tough team, but he felt like the Spartans left a lot of plays on the field.

“In a sport like this, it’s hard to play perfect and it’s probably not possible to play perfect,” Henderson said. “But still, there’s so much we can do on the field and plays that we left out there.”

Windmon echoed the thoughts of Henderson and Tucker.

“We still haven’t put that 60 (minutes) together as a full team yet, all three phases of the game, we gotta find a way to play better complementary football,” Windmon said. “It starts (Sunday) with Illinois, seeing what they got, watching film on them and getting better.”

Michigan State (3-5) will look to bounce back next week on the road at No. 17 Illinois (7-1). The game is set for a 3:30 p.m. Eastern Time kickoff and will be broadcast on the Big Ten Network.