Mel Tucker outfoxed us all as Michigan State football did the unthinkable
Jim Harbaugh got outcoached against Michigan State on Saturday afternoon. Again. This time as a 25-point favorite.
He got outfoxed and outflanked by a coach who had a month with his teams in pads, as the Spartans stunned the Wolverines, 27-24, on Saturday in Ann Arbor.
Think about that. About how difficult it’s been for Mel Tucker, about how little time he had after Mark Dantonio left, about how he had to get to know his team through the lens of a digital camera, about how unprepared his Spartans looked just a week ago.
Talk about a turnaround.
In six days? Are you kidding?
What Tucker just did should buy him the rest of year, and maybe next. He can lose every game the rest of the way and he should still get a parade when the pandemic ends.
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His team lost to Rutgers a week ago. Rutgers. But then maybe the Scarlet Knights aren't that bad anymore, and maybe it’s hard to compete when you turn the ball over seven times, as MSU did last week.
We should’ve listened to what Tucker said after that loss. To what his players said. I should’ve listened for sure.
We heard no panic. We heard it was a process. We heard they would forget the loss and prep for U-M and be ready to compete. We heard they were learning a new system and how to communicate and where they needed to be.
Well, on Saturday against the Wolverines, they were everywhere. In the right spots almost all afternoon, especially defensively, especially against the run.
The Wolverines, meanwhile, were not. They were confused and on the run. They were uncertain. MSU’s defensive line clogged up the middle, pushed back in the pocket, and dared U-M to beat it outside.
It did occasionally, but not consistently enough. Drives got rolling, then stalled. And while you could complain about U-M's playcalling or stubborn insistence on running up the gut again and again with little success, that would discredit what the Spartans did.
What Tucker did. What he and his defensive coordinator, Scott Hazelton, devised.
He shut down the point of attack. Where the Wolverines running backs were free to run everywhere a week ago against Minnesota, they were bottled up against MSU.
The Spartans showed similar ingenuity on offense. The coaches thought the secondary was the place to attack, and they did, as Rocky Lombardi threw for 323 yards and took at least a dozen shots down the field, connecting on several.
MSU used the long ball to keep U-M off balance all day. Lombardi feathered balls into tight spaces. His receivers, led by freshman Ricky White, made spectacular catches.
White had the catch of the day, helping set up a seven-play, 92-yard drive late in the game to give the Spartans a 10-point lead. He caught the ball, almost from a sitting position, near U-M's 2 as he was falling to the turf.
The freshman finished with eight catches for 196 yards. Welcome to the rivalry, kid.
And welcome to the rivalry, coach Tucker. It’s hard to imagine a more satisfying win. Or a more nauseating loss for Harbaugh, who finally has his quarterback in Joe Milton.
Though don’t blame Milton. Without his scrambling and running and high-velocity throws, the game might’ve been a blowout. Seriously. Milton kept the Wolverines in the game.
Which is crazy to say for a team that was favored by 25 points, for a program that looked like it might be ready to compete for a Big Ten title.
But then here came Mel Tucker and Rocky Lombardi and that MSU defense. And here came a reminder that this is still a rivalry, and that this is 2020, and that in college football it’s easy to get ahead of ourselves.
I did. Almost everyone did.
Except the new coach up the road, who gets to take a bus ride back to East Lansing and smile all the way, knowing he outcoached and outfoxed his biggest rival, knowing he outfoxed us all.
Losing like he did a week ago and winning like he did Saturday.
What a save. What a turnaround.
What will he do for an encore?
Contact Shawn Windsor: 313-222-6487 or email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @shawnwindsor.