Friday night in Evanston, Illinois will mark the beginning of year two in the Mel Tucker era. Michigan State, will match-up against Northwestern as 3-point underdogs, which should be considered a tough bet. Although the team did not release an official depth chart on Tuesday, or a starting quarterback for that matter, they figure to match up nicely in their Big Ten opener.
The last time these two teams played, the Spartans handed the Wildcats their only loss of the season before losing to Ohio State in the Big Ten Championship game. Beating a team that was ranked 8th in the country at the time showed that Mel Tucker could coach his team to wins in big-time situations. His first win against the team that resides in Ann Arbor also falls under that category. The 2021 opener at Ryan Field under the lights could make a trifecta.
Turnovers and Takeaways
It was less than a year ago when MSU opened the much-delayed 2020 College Football season in East Lansing against Rutgers. The optimism of having a new coach was quickly washed away as the Spartans gave up a whopping 7 turnovers in the loss. Needless to say that number is something the Spartans don’t want to come anywhere near on Friday night. In fact, a goal this team should have is to win the turnover battle. If Michigan State can take some of the life out of the home crowd with an early takeaway, they can open a lot of doors for themselves.
The key to beating Northwestern back on Thanksgiving weekend of last year was taking care of the football. Pat Fitzgeralds team threw two picks and coughed up two fumbles. The lone blemish was a Rocky Lombardi interception. Lombardi transferred to Northern Illinois this offseason which leaves MSU with either Payton Thorne or newcomer Anthony Russo as their starting quarterback this season. Whoever it may be, Coach Tucker would love to have his experienced and revamped offensive line keep them comfortable. Any football fan knows a quarterback that is not under duress is less likely to give the ball to the defense.
Running Back By Committee
The inability to efficiently and consistently run the football is something Michigan State is hoping to leave in 2020. The Spartans were one of the worst teams in College Football when it came to the ground game. 92 yards per game on just 2.6 yards per carry are numbers no football team at any level should be happy with.
With the addition of Kenneth Walker lll, a transfer from Wake Forest, the offense finds themselves with four serviceable ball carriers. Elijah Collins, Jordan Simmons, and the veteran Connor Heyward return from last years squad. Similar to quarterback, who will be the starter against Northwestern is a toss-up. Walker lll turned some heads in the Spartans spring game and had more yards as a Demon Deacon in 2020 than all 3 Spartan backs combined. Connor Heyward is a safe bet as he brings the most experience to a relatively young backfield.
None the less, Michigan State cannot become one-dimensional against a Pat Fitzgerald led defense. Running the ball effectively will allow the Spartans to open up the play book and control the tempo. Offensive coordinator Jay Johnson needs to decide early whether to ride the hot hand or go situational with his running backs.
Mel Tucker is a coach that preaches fundamentals. In a season opener where teams are not only figuring themselves, but their opponents out, mastering the basics are crucial. The pre-game message in the locker room will probably be simple. Take care of the football. Do your job. Win your battle. Win the game.