Michigan State football dealing with uncertainty again ahead of game with Ohio State

Joey Kaufman
Buckeye Xtra
First-year Michigan State coach Mel Tucker pumps his fist after the Spartans defeated Michigan on Oct. 31.

Michigan State is in a familiar situation. 

For the second time in three weeks, it is preparing for a football game that remains in limbo.  

The uncertainty surrounding Saturday’s game against Ohio State follows its previously scheduled matchup with Maryland on Nov. 21.

The Spartans were preparing to face the Terrapins, who had canceled their previous weekend’s game due to a coronavirus outbreak throughout their program. When more cases emerged, Maryland called off the game against Michigan State.

“It helps us a little bit,” quarterback Rocky Lombardi said of having faced the uncertainty before, “but at the end of the day, you prepare to play, and if you don't play, you don't play. There's really nothing to prepare for in not playing.”

Team meetings and practices for the Spartans this week are centered on facing the Buckeyes in a game that remains on the schedule.

“That’s what we can control,” coach Mel Tucker said, “and we don’t have information to tell us not to do that. That’s where our focus is, and that’s where it’s going to stay.”

The odds for a game to be held in East Lansing this weekend appeared to increase Tuesday afternoon when the Buckeyes announced they were resuming practice after a three-day pause in organized team activities because of a spike in coronavirus cases.

The program saw a rise in positives late last week that prompted the cancellation of a Thanksgiving weekend game at Illinois after essentially having no cases of COVID-19 throughout this season, according to team physician Jim Borchers.

But Michigan State players also viewed the Buckeyes as a high priority this week since it would be far more dicey to not go through routine preparations.

If the game is a go, Ohio State will bring one of the highest-scoring offenses in the country and is a program that has not lost a Big Ten game in two seasons.

“Especially with team like Ohio State, you don't ever want to be unprepared,” safety Xavier Henderson said, “so we're going to come in with the attitude that we're going to play. We're looking forward to play such a good team. We just got to get better each and every day.”

Lombardi pointed to the Buckeyes’ experience on defense, especially among the group of senior linebackers – Tuf Borland, Pete Werner and Baron Browning.

“I think they’ve had the same linebacking core for 12 years, it seems like,” he said.

The Spartans, off to a 2-3 start, have been inconsistent in their first year under Tucker, who replaced longtime coach Mark Dantonio after last season.

But they are coming off their best victory, a 29-20 upset of previously eighth-ranked Northwestern on Saturday, and beat rival Michigan in Ann Arbor on Halloween, signs of success in tough matchups.

“When you have coaches and players that are competitors, and when you're playing a really good matchup, obviously there's just a competition factor that kind of comes into play in terms of intrinsic motivation and wanting to put your best foot forward,” said Tucker, who was an assistant coach at Ohio State for four seasons on Jim Tressel’s staff.

Tucker hopes the Spartans can maintain the focus in the pursuit of another upset rather than dwelling on the circumstances surrounding the murky status of the game against the Buckeyes.

“We have to block out the noise,” he said. “The voices inside our building, from our coaching staff and our support staff, have to be stronger than any of the voices outside or any of the noise about any type of hypotheticals, or what-ifs, or uncertainty. That’s not where our focus is. Our focus is on preparing to play Ohio State. And we have a process for doing that. We’re laser focused in that way.”

jkaufman@dispatch.com

@joeyrkaufman