Couch: 3 quick takes on Michigan State's 38-27 loss to Rutgers in Mel Tucker's debut
1. As first impressions go ... ouch
EAST LANSING – Nobody thought Michigan State was going to plow through the Big Ten this season. But the depths of the struggle Saturday were unquestionably jarring.
Seven turnovers, an offensive line that doesn’t look built for the Big Ten, and a 38-27 loss to Rutgers that’ll go down as one of the low points in program history.
This wasn’t the debut Mel Tucker wanted. Nor the one you wanted for him. Nor is it entirely Mark Dantonio’s fault. His teams never turned the ball over seven times against Rutgers. They never did once in his 13 seasons. But this is his roster. The offensive line clearly isn’t an issue to be quickly fixed by a new voice.
Any angst toward Tucker's staff should come with the same perspective as a day ago — with the idea that this season is largely a free pass for Tucker and Co., a chance to set a tone and evaluate amid less-than-ideal circumstances. Losing to Rutgers, which had lost 21 straight in the Big Ten, isn't the tone you want to set. It makes it hard to keep that perspective, especially when MSU too often looked clumsy or undisciplined, and simply not ready for the moment.
Not since 1981 had MSU turned the ball over this many times. We’re talking the Muddy Waters era. Never a good comparison.
The prospect of a winless MSU football season is real. The Spartans are going to have to play really well just have a chance at a couple of wins this season. Here’s looking at you, Maryland and Northwestern. Maybe.
MSU’s defense played OK — better in the second half as MSU brought more pressure. The Spartans have some receivers on offense who can catch the ball and do things in space. They also have holes. Way too many to lose the turnover battle and win. Against anyone on their schedule.
The Tucker honeymoon isn’t over. But this might be a honeymoon from hell.
2. Jayden Reed, man
Jayden Reed, the heralded transfer from Western Michigan, was in on seemingly every consequential play — for better and, often, worse.
He’s clearly a playmaker at a level MSU has been missing. We saw that with his stutter-step juke and burst outside for a 50-yard touchdown and the late grab in the back of the end zone. He also fumbled twice, had a bad drop and an iffy penalty that brought back a long gain, just before his first touchdown.
It was a tough start for a player MSU hopes is a difference-maker on a roster and in a season that could use them. I don’t think that hope changes after this game. Yes, ball security looks like an issue. Perhaps it’s partly trying to do too much in an anticipated debut. He’s got to get those issues corrected, whatever the cause. And MSU has to ride Reed. He’s their dude. The man caught 11 passes for 128 yards and was targeted a team-high 13 times.
More Reed moving forward. Not less.
3. Finding the positives for MSU on a dismal day
Here are some names MSU fans can feel good about: senior defensive end Drew Beesley, redshirt freshman linebacker Chase Kline, senior linebacker Antjuan Simmons, junior cornerback Shakur Brown, freshman running back Jordon Simmons, senior tight end Matt Dotson and Rocky Lombardi.
Yes, Lombardi. At times, MSU’s junior QB looked like someone who hadn’t played much Big Ten football in two years — his miscommunication with Jalen Nailor which resulted in a bad interception and a fumble near the goal line when he didn’t feel the blindside pressure are two examples. He also missed a wide-open Nailor in the fourth quarter and didn’t connect on anything more than 20 yards downfield. But he also kept MSU’s offense moving, without adequate protection or a run game of any oomph, other than a few strong runs from Simmons. And still, he completed 31 of 44 passes for 319 yards, three scores and the two aforementioned turnovers. This wasn’t a bad debut for Lombardi. He just wasn’t capable of carrying MSU beyond its shortcomings and errors. Namely seven turnovers.
Simmons suddenly looks like MSU’s best option at running back. He doesn’t always see the hole, but he runs hard and he’s got a burst to him — and he was the only MSU running back with enough strength and quickness to overcome a lack of running room. He was the third running back to enter the game — behind surprise starter Connor Heyward and Elijah Collins — and looked like MSU’s best hope at occasional chunks of yardage on the ground.
Kline’s jarring hit in punt coverage led to an Antjuan Simmons fumble recovery and Nailor touchdown in the third quarter for MSU’s best momentum swing of the game. Simmons played up to his level with 11 tackles, three of them for loss. Beesley had a sack and 2.5 tackles for loss. Brown not only had an interception — his return for a touchdown was negated by a penalty — but he also, from what I saw, looked solid in coverage. And on offense, Matt Dotson, coming off a serious Achilles injury, had four catches for 37 yards and looks like he’ll be valuable this season.
… If you can stomach the thought of the rest of this season.
Contact Graham Couch at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @Graham_Couch.