LINCOLN — Mel Tucker is a man of details, and you know this because Michigan State’s football coach, over the course of his 40-minute press conference, unpacks just about every detail possible.
He gives lengthy opening statements. To a Monday question about going on the road, Tucker offered a 90-second answer that explained how the team travels and acknowledged the number of MSU fans who traveled to watch a 31-13 win over Rutgers.
A longtime defensive coach, Tucker doesn’t fit the old stereotype of the rah-rah, heart-on-sleeve defensive coordinator that Bo Pelini was or Pat Narduzzi is. Or Indiana’s Tom Allen, for that matter.
Tucker, like a lot of the new-school defensive head coaches, gives off a global CEO vibe.
“We all have to buy into something bigger than ourselves with this team,” Tucker said at his press conference. “We have to be humble and hard-working and unselfish — put the team first, whether it’s a coach or a player. To get what you want, it’s better to help someone get what they want. That’s the type of mentality we have on our team. We don’t worry too much about the individual accolades. We’re going to take what’s out there. When there are opportunities to make plays — we want to make them. That’s what we’re seeing, and it needs to stay that way.”
Tucker is currently one of, say, three favorites for national coach of the year — Iowa’s Kirk Ferentz is perhaps another — for a rebuilding job that, given what he inherited from Mark Dantonio, is fairly amazing. Oh, Dantonio — who cut and ran in February 2020 — left decent players on the roster. But he gave so little notice on his sudden retirement that Tucker had zero time to build any chemistry with his players during a strange COVID year. MSU struggled mightily in 2020, finishing 2-5.
I picked the Spartans last in the Big Ten East this year. I did so without hesitation. I was wrong. Everyone was. MSU is headed for a nine-win season, and, aside from The Punt against Nebraska, none of it’s been a fluke. Michigan State pounded Northwestern, Miami and Rutgers. Its offense, coordinated by Jay Johnson, utilizes the big three weapons — receivers Jalen Nailor and Jayden Reed and running back Kenneth Walker III — really well. Quarterback Payton Thorne is a better-than-average passer who throws more than two touchdowns per game. The defense, salty when Tucker inherited it, gives up a lot of yards through the air but stiffens up in the red zone and allows just 19.3 points per game.
Allen, who faces the Spartans this week, summed it up well this week at his press conference.
“They run the football,” Allen said. “And they don't turn the ball over. Creating takeaways on defense. Their defense bends a little bit. They give up some yards. Don't give up points.”
Michigan State heads to Indiana this week as a four-point favorite. MSU is the team we thought IU might be — and, because of an inconsistent offense, isn’t — and the Hoosiers may not have the services of quarterback Michael Penix on Saturday. Allen said he’ll play the decision all the way up to kickoff; at least he had a bye week to prepare backup Jack Tuttle, who has the name of a backup who’s been shoved out there against a top ten team to absorb the blows.
Which is what I’d expect to happen. MSU will head into its bye week with a perfect record and two weeks to plot for Michigan. Mel Tucker is already 1-0 against Jim Harbaugh.
My prediction: Michigan State 28-14
Minnesota vs. Nebraska
11 a.m., ESPN2
Line: Nebraska by 4
If Nebraska is the team it thinks it is — and says it is — it’ll find a way to keep the Gophers from sitting on the ball and grinding out a small, low-scoring win. NU could stand to bring a little more heat on D and force a couple more turnovers, too. Minnesota is down to its No. 3 running back.
Wisconsin vs. Army
7 p.m., BTN
Line: Wisconsin by 14
The Badgers play the kind of run defense that should slow down one of college football’s premier rush offenses. Army has come close — but fallen short — in losses to Oklahoma and Michigan. Saturday night, perhaps, is the time. Or, given Wisconsin’s familiarity with running the ball and stopping the run, perhaps it isn’t.
Northwestern vs. Rutgers
11:00 a.m., BTN
Line: Rutgers by 2
Tough call here. RU needs a bye week. Northwestern needs a reset that a bye week probably can’t provide. Give me the better quarterback — in this case Rutgers’ Noah Vedral — for a final drive that wins the game. Ugly contest in front of a small crowd.
Iowa vs. Purdue
2:30 p.m., ABC
Line: Iowa by 12
Purdue has won three of the last four in this series for a reason: The Boilermakers’ offense tends to have some answers for Iowa’s bend-don’t-break defensive scheme. Is Purdue’s defense up to the challenge? This year, coming off a bye week, I suspect it is. Iowa may squeak it out, but it gets hot under the collar in the process.