In preparation for today’s showdown for the most beautiful trophy in sports, we caught up with our friends at The Only Colors (specifically Ryan O’Bleness) to learn more about the Michigan State Spartans.
1) The first season for Mel Tucker has some great moments and has some not so great moments. That being said, what is the perception currently like around Tucker from the Spartans fan base and what are the general expectations going forward over the next few years?
I think most fans understood this year would be somewhat of a rebuild, and while Spartan fans always expect good results, patience is key. Mel Tucker often speaks about building the “culture” and “the process,” and while a lot of the time it feels like coachspeak, he’s right — this is a new era and that takes time to build up. Tucker has had to deal with a lot of challenges this year, and when you think about it, what he has even been able to accomplish so far is impressive. Tucker wasn’t hired until mid-February when Mark Dantonio surprisingly retired one day before National Signing Day. He spent the next few weeks building a staff. By the time he had everything in place, the COVID-19 pandemic hit soon after, This wiped away spring ball, in-person workouts and team meetings, on-campus recruiting, etc. Tucker and his staff had to implement the new offensive and defensive schemes via Zoom calls, which obviously is not ideal. Plus, the team lost several starters from last season, including eight full-time starters on defense. So, there were obviously going to be ups and downs this season.
The wins have been really awesome — he was the first Michigan State coach since Nick Saban to beat Michigan in his first try, and the top-10 win over Northwestern was also an early signature win. But the losses have also been really bad — seven turnovers against Rutgers (and the first loss ever by MSU to the Scarlet Knights since they joined the Big Ten) and three games in which the team was blown out of the water (Iowa, Indiana and Ohio State). I think overall, most fans have a lot of faith in Tucker and what he is building in East Lansing, but it’s still wait-and-see mode. He’s also known as an excellent recruiter and is bringing in a talented (but not spectacular) 2021 class. The more of his kind of guys he starts bringing in, the quicker he will turn the program around. As far as I am concerned, the future is pretty bright with Tucker at the helm, but there is a lot of work to do.
2) The Michigan State offense this year has been mostly abysmal, what has been the causes of those struggles? What do you expect to see of them on Saturday?
The main issues have been with the offensive line (particularly the run blocking), inconsistent quarterback play and turnovers. Outside of the Northwestern game, the Spartans have not been able to run the ball, entering Saturday’s game with an average of just 95.2 rushing yards per game. Making the team one-dimensional has not worked out well for MSU.
At the quarterback position, Rocky Lombardi has started every game this year, but the results have not been great. He had a very good game against Michigan, and a pretty good game against Northwestern (both wins), but has had some really rough outings otherwise. Lombardi has struggled with accuracy and giving the ball away, but has shown the ability to hit on some deep balls and provides leadership. He was forced out of the game against Ohio State with an apparent head injury and his status for this weekend is still uncertain. Redshirt freshman Payton Thorne stepped in and was able to move the ball better against the Buckeyes, but had a fumble and interception himself. Thorne doesn’t have as strong of an arm as Lombardi, but seems to be more mobile and more accurate on short and intermediate throws. I would like to see Thorne start against Penn State, but we will see.
Michigan State has thrown 11 interceptions and lost eight fumbles, and ranks toward the bottom of the nation in turnover margin. Overall, the team has just been very inconsistent. It’s hard to predict which version of this team will show up each week.
3) The defense hasn’t been much better for the Spartans which historically uncharacteristic, even last year the defense was pretty good, why do you think they’ve taken such a step back and how should Penn State attack the defense?
I would say outside of the Ohio State game, the defense has played much better this year than the stats show. A lot of the time, the defense was put in awful situations by the offense (turnovers) or the special teams unit (poor punts and punt coverage), hence the high points per game average allowed (34.5). The issue with the defense has mostly been adjusting to defensive coordinator Scottie Hazelton’s new 4-2-5 concept and missed tackles. The good news is those are things that can be fixed and the players have gotten more comfortable in the scheme as the year has gone on. Michigan State has definitely not been as good defensively as it has been in the past few years, but there are some promising pieces on this defense, such as linebacker Antjuan Simmons, cornerback Shakur Brown, defensive tackle Naquan Jones and defensive end Jacub Panasiuk, among others. Do not be surprised if you see a much better effort from the defense this time around. Again, the unit is better than the statistics show, ranking 17th in ESPN’s SP+ rankings.
For the Penn State offense to have success, it needs to use the run to set up the pass and not become one-dimensional. It’s tough to run up the middle against the Spartans, so use speed to get to the outside and down the sideline. The Spartans finally found some success in the pass rush last week with three sacks, but that hasn’t been a big strength this season, and you won’t see a lot of blitzes from the Spartans, so Sean Clifford (or Will Levis) should have time in the pocket to be patient and make good decisions with the football. Michigan State has also been susceptible to some big plays from time to time, so Penn State could attempt to take some deep shots off play-action (not recommended to Brown’s side of the field who is tied for first in the nation with five interceptions).
4) In just a few sentences, can you please talk about what the beautiful and world’s greatest trophy, the Land Grant Trophy means to you?
Haha, I will say there is no other trophy quite like it, that is for sure. While it isn’t aesthetically pleasing to the eye, I agree with Mel Tucker in that it is something Spartans fans, and the Michigan State program, definitely still wants in the trophy case. I also like that for at least this season, the Land Grant Trophy rivalry game has been moved back to the final game of the year, as it should be.
Here is how Tucker so eloquently put it:
“I haven’t evaluated the aesthetics of the trophy, I just would like to have it,” Tucker said. “Obviously, they’re not just gonna give it to us, so we’re gonna have to earn it. You know, ugly trophies, ugly babies, you want to have them.”
5) Finally, what’s your prediction for the game tomorrow and how do you see it playing out?
This is going to sound like a homer pick, but I actually think Michigan State wins this game. While I believe Penn State is better than its record shows, and is probably the more talented team, I have a good feeling about this one for the Spartans, much like I did against Northwestern, and I don’t quite understand the -14.5 line for the Nittany Lions. Michigan State has given seemingly more talented Penn State teams fits in the past few years. I expect a closely contested game all the way through that may come down to the wire, but I expect Tucker to have his guys much more prepared and ready after last weekend’s embarrassment. Give me Michigan State 27, Penn State 24
There you have it folks, thank you to Ryan for taking his time out of his week to answer our questions and now you’re all set for today’s matchup!