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Why Michigan State’s second-straight loss was predicable after just two series

“There’s really nothing that happens out there that shocks me, just because I’ve just seen too much football,” Mel Tucker said.

Minnesota v Michigan State Photo by Mike Mulholland/Getty Images

Following an 11-win season for Michigan State in head coach Mel Tucker’s second season, you could’ve expected some recession, some setbacks, but a 2-2 start would’ve come as a surprise.

But in the past two weeks, Michigan State dropped out of the polls from No. 11 nationally after enduring consecutive losses by a combined score of 73-35, the former of the defeats coming as the initial reality check and the latter confirming that neither loss was a fluke.

“There’s really nothing that happens out there that shocks me, just because I’ve just seen too much football,” Tucker said following the loss to Minnesota Saturday.

Though a wholistic lens, it’s a bit more understandable. The Spartans lost a running back in Kenneth Walker III whose importance I’d argue continues to prove greater with time, as he made house calls out of seemingly broken plays. Couple this with injuries to Xavier Henderson and Darius Snow, and MSU’s secondary, which ranked dead-last a year ago and appears to be trending that way again, may give its predecessor a run for its money.

Maybe this is what Tucker was alluding to postgame.

What was surprising, though, was the seemingly innovative Tucker, along with offensive coordinator Jay Johnson, opting for routes that produced just five yards per reception during a first half in which the Spartans endured a three-score deficit.

Known to prefer the run, Minnesota came out firing on its first drive without its best receiver (Chris Autman-Bell), displaying adaptability in throwing the ball on three of its first four plays, and opting for an even split of run and pass en route to an easy score.

MSU, on the other hand, countered with two rushes for a total of four yards and a short completion for three more yards for a three-and-out. Minnesota marched to a score again, and the Spartans also repeated for an empty one-series possession.

“I think it’s a rhythm thing,” redshirt junior receiver Tre Mosley said. “If we can’t get in a rhythm, it’s hard to call deep shots, because defenses are sitting back and they’re allowing us to catch things underneath, but they’re playing over the top.”

This is where Tucker’s thoughts postgame become ever-more telling. The Spartans no longer reserve the luxury to get in rhythm with a dynamic running game. Although it was clear MSU’s offensive line was producing average results at best, the Spartans continued to line up as if they remained the superior unit on the field, and that the run game would produce enough to make a game of a three-score deficit.

It felt like an expression of futility, that the Spartans do not have the talent in place yet, much like Tucker expressed after a loss to Ohio State last year.

“We’re not good enough on either side of the ball to not play complimentary football,” Tucker continued.

MSU still had ample opportunity to get back into the contest, but the bits of momentum produced on offense were eventually curtailed by a turnover or a route run harmlessly shy of the line to gain.

This notion came to a head as the first half waned away. The Spartans, still down 17-0 with under five minutes to play, had the chance to mitigate the deficit significantly. On third-and-10 at its own 45-yard-line, Michigan State opted for a three-yard curl to sophomore receiver Keon Coleman in what seemed like four-down territory. Instead, the Spartans trotted out the punt team to boot away the ball and — considering MSU’s defensive struggles — their chances in the contest.

Michigan State (2-2) lines up for a consecutive “gut check” contest as it travels to College Park to face Maryland (3-1) on Saturday at 3:30 p.m.