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Michigan State football needs to find its identity

Marvin Hall/The Only Colors

The Michigan State football team has lost two games in a row, and to be quite frank, in brutal fashion. The Spartans have been outscored 73-35 combined in the past two contests to the Washington Huskies and Minnesota Golden Gophers. MSU never even threatened to win in either game.

Now at 2-2 (and 0-1 in Big Ten Conference play), with the most difficult stretch of the season coming up, the situation is quickly becoming dire for Michigan State if the Spartans plan to even make a bowl game at this point, which should be the absolutely minimum expectation for head coach Mel Tucker and his program.

The problem right now is that this team seems to lack an identity — offensively, defensively, special teams or otherwise. There aren’t a lot of things the team is doing well at this current juncture that would strike fear into an opponent.

There were numerous questions about the Spartans entering the season — namely if Michigan State could replace Kenneth Walker III’s production in the run game, if the offensive line would hold up after losing numerous starters/rotational players, and if the passing defense would improve from its dead-last ranking in terms of yards per game allowed in 2021.

Through two games — victories over Mid-American Conference foes Western Michigan and Akron — a lot of those question marks seemed to be less concerning, although there were still some obvious areas for improvement.

However, those games came against MAC teams, and when Michigan State had its first real test on the road against Washington, all of those questions and concerns were back to the forefront in a 39-28 loss. Against Minnesota this past weekend, things looked even worse in a 34-7 blowout loss at home. Once the competition level was raised to fellow Power Five schools, Michigan State faltered.

After the first two games of the season, it looked like Michigan State’s calling card was going to be pressuring opposing quarterbacks under pass-rush specialist coach Brandon Jordan. MSU led the nation after the first two weeks of gameplay with 12 sacks, led by linebacker/defensive end Jacoby Windmon (5.5 sacks). However, in the past two games against Washington and Minnesota combined, the Spartans did not record a single sack. As the quality of opponent has gone up, Michigan State’s pass rush prowess has disappeared.

Following MSU’s first two wins of the year, the running game looked strong, even without Walker, as Jalen Berger and Jarek Broussard formed a nice one-two punch in the backfield. Since then, though, the offensive line has not been able to generate a push and create space for the running backs, and Berger and Broussard have been non-factors. Broussard had a very poor game against Washington, making several mistakes, including giving up a safety by slipping in the end zone.

Currently, Michigan State is averaging 134.3 yards per game, which ranks just 92nd in the country. And over the past two games, MSU has rushed for a combined 80 yards (40 yards per game). That won’t cut it. Berger, Broussard and Elijah Collins are all talented tailbacks, MSU needs to get them going.

The passing game has struggled, too. Quarterback Payton Thorne has played poorly in three of the four games this season. He has missed many throws you would expect him to hit, and his three costly turnovers were detrimental for Michigan State against Minnesota.

Thorne has not played up to the level he showed in 2021, although struggles with the offensive line, running game and defense are partially to blame for putting Thorne into tough situations. Still, he is a team leader and the best option at quarterback. He is resilient and will look to improve his play moving forward.

Perhaps most importantly, and the biggest concern for Michigan State, is the pass defense. A unit that ranked dead-last in passing yards allowed per game in 2021 is performing just as poorly, if not worse, in 2022. Last year, Michigan State gave up an FBS-worst 324.77 yards per game. Through four games this season, the Spartans are giving 265.25 yards per game (tied for 101st in the FBS), but it’s really quite worse than that when you consider MSU has allowed 332.5 passing yards per game in the last two contests.

Whether the biggest issue is defensive coordinator Scottie Hazelton’s scheme, the players themselves, injuries, preparation or a combination of all of the above, the Spartans seem to have zero answers when it comes to defending the pass, for the second year in a row. That can’t happen at this level.

Speaking of injuries, the team has also been decimated by them, particularly on the defensive side of the ball. Losing safety and team leader Xavier Henderson for an extended period of time hurts. Losing versatile linebacker Darius Snow for the year perhaps hurts even more. Defensive tackle Jacob Slade has missed the past two games, wide receiver Jayden Reed missed the Washington game, defensive end Jeff Pietrowski missed the Minnesota game and so forth.

However, Tucker and his players preach “Next man up mentality.” The players who are called upon to step in need to be ready to perform. That hasn’t been the case.

Right now, there are not a whole lot of positives to build on for Michigan State. Again, the Spartans are lacking an identify on the field. Tucker is aware of that.

After the loss to Minnesota, Tucker said “I’m really not happy with what I’m seeing. I don’t accept it, but I do understand what our issues are.”

If Michigan State wants to turn this losing streak around, compete in the Big Ten East and make a bowl game, it needs to find that identity, and quickly. As of now, the only thing MSU’s 2022 team is known for is being shredded by opposing quarterbacks. This was the case last year, too, but the 2021 squad made up for that with a stout run defense and an explosive offense led by Walker. This year’s team is still searching for something it can hang its hat on.

The defensive scheme under Hazelton has been heavily criticized, and many fans want to see Tucker move on from Hazelton. The play-calling of offensive coordinator has been questioned as well. The $95 million contract extension that Tucker signed last year has been scrutinized. There have been calls for starting quarterback Payton Thorne to be benched in favor of backup Noah Kim.

Some of these complaints are simply overreactions — it is only two (albeit brutal) losses to two very good-looking teams — but some of these things have real merit to them, and changes need to be made quickly if Michigan State is to make improvements this season.

With that said, Michigan State still technically controls its own destiny in the Big Ten East Division, although the odds of the Spartans winning it are less than one percent. If anybody can get their team motivated and make a quick turnaround, it’s Tucker.

And even if that doesn’t happen this season (it very well may not), there should still be plenty of faith in Tucker to turn the program around in the future. It is important to remember that Michigan State is still in a rebuilding process, and while 2021 may have been a mirage, Tucker’s high school and transfer portal recruiting ability has been really strong. The future looks bright for MSU — but those high school prospects won’t be making a serious impact for the Spartans for a few more years. Patience is a virtue.

For me, personally, I have no concerns about the future of this program under Tucker’s leadership. He is leading it in the right direction and has already brought Michigan State back into the national spotlight. There is a lot of work to do to get to the level where it is competing for conference (and perhaps eventually national) championships, though, as Tucker hopes. But the foundation has been laid.

Tucker — who preaches a culture of accountability — will need to make some tough decisions in terms of his staff and personnel soon, but that is why he is paid the big bucks. However, it may be a grim reality that the 2022 season is going to be a tough one for MSU fans to watch.

To be fair, it’s still relatively early in he season and there is still plenty of time to right the ship. We’ll see if Michigan State can turn things around this Saturday at Maryland (3:30 p.m. Eastern Time, FS1).