Couch: Wait to judge Mel Tucker until he has a chance to do the work he was hired to do
EAST LANSING – Mel Tucker’s honeymoon as Michigan State’s head coach lasted 9 minutes into the first quarter of his first game.
That’s how long he got before frustration from MSU fans began to simmer on social media. Some folks didn’t even wait until the end the Spartans’ 38-27 loss to Rutgers send their emails.
“This is the WORST coaching job that I've seen in 60 years of watching MSU football,” one fan wrote.
It was among the most dispiriting performances, that’s for sure — a seven-turnover defeat to a perennial Big Ten doormat on a day that marked the beginning of a new era of Spartan football.
It was worse than expected. The self-inflected mistakes. The offensive line play. The running game. The short-yardage play-calling. All of it felt like the end of the Mark Dantonio era amplified.
I’m going to ask you to do something: Wait to judge Tucker and his staff for a little bit. Like you had planned to before Saturday.
Tucker wasn’t hired for what he might do on Day 1 with Dantonio’s roster. He was hired to develop the roster in place and to improve it through recruiting. Let’s at least see what this team looks like at the end of the season — whether they’re making the same mistakes, whether he and his staff are able to maximize what they have now.
Tucker was “disappointed” in the result, the turnovers, the running game that went nowhere. Like actually nowhere: 1.6 yards per carry. But he didn't sound angry or defensive or deterred.
“Offensively, our philosophy is we want to be able to run the ball on our terms and we weren’t able to do today,” Tucker said after Saturday’s loss. “That’s got to happen in order for us to be successful.”
That could be a problem in the short-term. MSU’s offensive line looks like it needs an overhaul that could take years. Let’s see what this coaching staff can do with it on the fly and how quickly they understand that running on four-and-2 is essentially a turnover by decision.
Let’s see how this team responds. How receiver Jayden Reed performs next week after two fumbles that marred an otherwise spectacular debut – 11 catches, 128 yards, two touchdowns.
“Ball security, (teams) are going to target me on that,” Reed said. “They’re going to tell them to rip the ball, when they get to me, if they can get to me.”
Let’s see how Rocky Lombardi does in his next start, after completing 31 of 44 passes for 319 yards Saturday, while throwing three touchdowns and two interceptions. He missed everything he threw beyond 20 yards. But was pretty good underneath, other than a couple miscommunications with receivers, including one that resulted in a first-half interception that quickly led to a Rutgers touchdown.
I know this: MSU’s team responded well in the aftermath of Saturday’s loss. There was no angst coming from players that were interviewed. Not even an ounce of frustration in the tone of their voices. This isn’t the time for anger. Probably not the season for it. They seemed to mimic their head coach’s perspective: “This is the beginning. This is not the end. This is a process,” Tucker said.
For the sake of your heartburn, you might want to tune back in closer to the end. Or maybe check back a month from now, when MSU faces Maryland and Northwestern. Be careful next week. Perhaps delete the Twitter app on your phone and hide your computer. Maybe don't watch.
I’ll say this about this MSU team: They didn’t sound defeated. Too often over the last two seasons, the losing and the offensive struggles in the face of expectations wore on the players. These guys don’t have those burdens. They didn’t sound like a group that had lost confidence.
“It won’t be too difficult (to move on),” safety Xavier Henderson said. “We know what we have to do and we’re going to get it done.”
The question was about playing next week. Against Michigan. That seems like a big ask. It would, though, be interesting to see this team play a game when it didn’t lose the turnover battle 7-3. The Spartans out-gained Rutgers by 100 yards. They made their field goals. They showed some explosiveness at receiver. And they showed they’re vulnerable in a lot of ways.
“It looked like guys were in the right position most of the time. We’ve just got to make plays,” senior linebacker Antjuan Simmons said.
If defensive players are where they’re supposed to be and missing tackles and pass breakups, the fix is in development of technique and recruiting. Not usually by next Saturday.
Rutgers has a new coach, too. But Greg Schiano, unlike Tucker, has had a recruiting class of his own, including a handful of big-school transfers who played Saturday. Rutgers looks improved. Still ...
“I know our fans expect more from this football team than what we showed today. And we expect more from ourselves,” Tucker said. “There’s a higher standard. We’ve got work to do.”
Let him do it. Then judge him.
Contact Graham Couch at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @Graham_Couch.