COLUMBUS, Ohio – I don’t think Mel Tucker wanted to get into a big picture conversation with the sting of Saturday’s belittling loss to the Buckeyes so fresh. Not with two seniors he respects, Xavier Henderson and Connor Heyward, standing off to the side of the podium, waiting their turn to explain a 56-7 loss at Ohio State that could have been so much worse, if not for the mercy of their opponent.
But what transpired on the field Saturday — the 49-0 first half — encapsulated perfectly the big-picture task at hand for Tucker, and the wide gap between two programs separated by just three places in the most recent College Football Playoff rankings.
The takeaway isn’t that Michigan State should second-guess the 10-year, $95-million donor-driven contract extension it offered Tucker. The takeaway is that this is why they’re trying so hard to hold onto him — because who the Spartans are as a football program isn’t who they want to be. And they believe that he, more than anyone available, can get them there, so it doesn’t look like this against Ohio State. The early returns with Tucker — on the field and in recruiting — have been promising and so it became worth a fight to keep him.
Saturday didn’t make the first 10 games of this season a mirage — the Paul Bunyan Trophy is still theirs. But it was a reality check, a reminder of the reason MSU hired Tucker less than two years ago, with hope he could elevate the Spartans’ talent. With that in mind, Tucker relented.
“Recruiting is where we’re going to close the gap,” he said, his final answer in a 15-minute press conference. “Because we need more depth. And we need more guys that can win one on one. I think that’s obvious. And I don’t think that’s news, actually, if anyone’s really paying attention. It’s execution, obviously, and then we’re going to have to recruit like crazy, like we’ve been doing. We’re going to continue to do that. And we’re just going to be relentless in doing that.
“And we’re built to do that. We’re built to recruit at a high level. And we’ll continue to work to improve our team (this season), get as healthy as we possibly can and get ready for this next game. But big picture, that’s what we need to do. We need to recruit like crazy.”
That’s a perspective that’ll soothe the spirits of Spartan fans, who rightfully got caught up in the bliss of two months of exhilarating football and, like MSU’s team, by Saturday, were easing themselves into hope that the program was closer to Ohio State’s level than it is. We also have to understand that if these two teams had met on Sept. 24 — as they will next season — it wouldn’t have looked like this. The degree of Saturday’s blowout was aided by MSU’s injuries, the trajectory of each teams’ play this month and by MSU’s biggest weakness, its pass defense, going up against the Buckeyes’ strength. And, perhaps, also by an Ohio State team motivated by facing a well-hyped Heisman Trophy candidate at running back.
“We didn’t want to be one of those teams that he did what he wanted against,” Ohio State defensive end Tyreke Smith said of Kenneth Walker. “We just had that mindset and we were going to shut him down all week.”
Walker, who Tucker admitted afterward is “a little banged up,” carried only six times for 25 yards. He never had a chance to be the story. MSU’s defense couldn’t get a stop. Ohio State scored touchdowns on their first seven possessions and then took a knee 30 seconds before halftime.
“From a coaching standpoint, there were no surprises out there in terms of what we saw,” Tucker said. “Just a matter of they out-executed us and then they won some one-on-ones. A lot of times it does come down to one-on-one matchups, and they won those.”
This was entirely about the Jimmies and the Joes. MSU’s personnel was too overwhelmed to execute.
“Sometimes, guys look fast on film and you get out there — I mean I’ve played against those dudes so I knew how fast they were,” Henderson said. “But some of the guys that haven’t played against them (and) it’s hard to really tell how fast dudes are until you get out there and you’re on the field with them. They were throwing the ball over our heads.”
What’s made Tucker’s first season at MSU so dazzling, until now, is how much he and his staff have gotten out of this roster — largely a mix of holdovers from the Mark Dantonio era and several notable transfers, including one home run in Walker. It’s how prepared MSU has looked, how resolute the Spartans have been, the development of key players and the way they’ve come through in key moments. The coaching acumen, as much as the recruiting, has bolstered the belief in Tucker.
This is a new kind of challenge for him with this team — getting a group that’s believed in itself all year, that now knows it doesn’t come close to measuring up with the best, to bounce back after being “embarrassed” in front of 110,000 fans, as Henderson put it. The good news is the attendance was actually less than 102,000. The bad news: It was also televised nationally.
“If you’re in this game long enough as a player, as a coach, you’re going to have days like this,” Tucker said, after his team fell to 9-2. “It’s just inevitable. It’s going to happen and you don’t want it to happen. … But when things like this do happen, it’s all about how you respond.
“I told them (after the game), ‘Listen, we win as a team and we lose as a team. I told them that what was most important is what’s next. And what’s next is we have to (look) the video … see exactly what it is, what’s the truth, where were the breakdowns, why? Who? And then own that. We have to own that. There’s no excuses.
“It’s really a test of character as a team and as an individual man. Because it’s easy when things are going right and you’re winning. I mean, that’s easy. But when it gets tough is when you have a performance like this — high expectations, you get blown out on the road, and then all the opinions take flight. And so now what are you going to do now? How are you going to handle that?”
MSU might not be healthy enough to be at its former best next week against Penn State. The Spartans might not be good enough right now to win that game. But we’ll know how they handle it. We saw the last time MSU didn’t handle a deflating loss at Ohio State well — the 34-10 measuring-stick defeat in 2019 that, a week later, spiraled into a 38-0 loss at Wisconsin.
Before Tucker and Co. can add speed to the defensive backfield and perhaps nab a pass rusher from the transfer portal and welcome what looks like a gifted incoming recruiting class, they’ve got to shepherd this current squad to what could still be a fulfilling finish to an extraordinary season.
After what transpired Saturday, that’s a sizable test.
Contact Graham Couch at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @Graham_Couch.
This article originally appeared on Lansing State Journal: Ohio State blowout is why MSU football is fighting to keep Mel Tucker