The defense, at best, looked just as it did last year. In reality, it was probably worse. (In all fairness, Michigan State was missing three key starters.) The offense was not good at the start of the game. After falling down 7-0, MSU responded by running five plays on the next drive before punting.
On the first drive, Michigan State junior quarterback Payton Thorne went to hand it off to Jarek Broussard, but there was some sort of miscommunication and the fifth-year senior running back appeared to go the wrong way on the play. On MSU’s second possession, Broussard slipped and fell in the end zone to give up a safety. The team was out of sync and out of place on both offense and defense. It could not have gone worse for MSU.
Fans are particularly upset with Michigan State’s defense, prompting them to call for defensive coordinator Scottie Hazelton’s job. Today, we’re going to dive into every one of these overreactions to MSU’s loss and analyze it.
“Scottie Hazelton should be fired”
Don’t get me wrong. Michigan State’s defense looked bad. In fact, it looked like a MAC team was playing against a Power Five team. Players were out of position and biting on fakes from Washington quarterback Michael Penix Jr. It was like practice for him. Penix threw for 397 yards and four touchdowns.
However, Hazelton deserves the benefit of the doubt.
Michigan State was missing senior defensive tackle Jacob Slade, senior safety Xavier Henderson and junior linebacker Darius Snow. Those are vital impact pieces that are just gone.
Additionally, let’s stop pretending like this squad — even without injuries — is a top-tier defensive team. Is it possible that Hazelton is just running the scheme he trusts players to run? When players are constantly missing assignments, biting on fakes from the quarterback and giving up 102 yards through the air on targets (just as defensive back Chester Kimbrough did), that is a sign of a team that isn’t good enough.
That’s not to say Hazelton doesn’t deserve any criticism, though. Penix barely faced any pressure from Michigan State. Senior linebacker/defensive end Jacoby Windmon, who had 5.5 sacks in his first two games, was hardly noticeable. It’s also concerning that Michigan State’s coaches — on both offense and defense — all struggled to adapt to what Washington was giving them.
We shouldn’t be surprised by Michigan State’s defense, though. This is a team built mostly by transfers. Head coach Mel Tucker is still building this team. That talent gap can only be rebuilt via recruiting.
On Payton Thorne’s struggles
Of course, this is no longer an issue, but it’s worth mentioning here. After playing Akron last weekend, fans wanted Thorne gone. They wanted backup quarterback Noah Kim in.
If Michigan State was ever truly in doubt about the quarterback position, this season would be in trouble.
That was all put to rest against Washington, as I suspected. It seemed like Thorne and his receivers were the only ones actually in sync the entire game. Thorne was 30-for-42 with 323 passing yards, three touchdowns and one interception. He also had 12 rushing yards.
Sophomore wide receiver Keon Coleman really stepped up for Michigan State in this game. One specific drive comes to mind and it came at a crucial time.
Coleman had nine receptions for 116 yards and two touchdowns.
The offense missed senior wide receiver Jayden Reed, who was out with injury after being pushed into a bench against Akron. It was a big blow considering the connection that Thorne and Reed have.
“Mel Tucker doesn’t deserve his salary”
After going 11-2 last season, Tucker was given a 10-year, $95 million contract. At the time, it was the third-largest contract given to a college football head coach.
Even if Michigan State is a seven-win football team this year, the trajectory that Tucker has ascended the program to is a much better place. Recruiting is strong and so is the coaching. Just look at how Thorne talked to players on the sideline. He made everyone believe MSU could win that game even when the Spartans clearly weren't going to.
Wins against Michigan, Nebraska and Penn State last season would not have happened without Tucker. He’s also utilizing new college football rules, such as the transfer portal and name, image and likeness to his benefit.
Let’s call this game what it was: a loss. That’s tough, but have you seen the rest of the league? It’s hard to get a win.
And, as mentioned, it was disappointing to see a lack of change from Michigan State’s coaching staff. I know that the offense isn’t Tucker’s specialty. But when you can’t run the ball for more than two yards at a time, why keep trying when the score is so lopsided?
I need to see improvement in offensive coordinator Jay Johnson’s strategy. Michigan State kept calling run plays when there wasn’t anything. The offensive line clearly wasn’t helping. They couldn’t run block or protect Thorne. Then MSU ran the ball out of the shotgun on third-down-and-1. If you’re going shotgun there, you deserve the result, which wasn’t a first down.
So, it’s tough to say that coaches got it right in this game. There was hardly any adaption and in-game adjustments need to be better. But saying Tucker is washed because of one loss early in the season? That’s absurd. Let’s also remember that Tucker’s contract extension is at least partially (if not mostly) privately-funded as well.
Michigan State takes on Minnesota at home next Saturday. The game airs on Big Ten Network and will start at 3:30 p.m. Eastern Time. Currently, Michigan State is a one-point underdog. Minnesota may not have been great last season, but the Gophers could win the Big Ten West this year. It’s as important as ever for MSU to win that game.