Mel Tucker was nothing if not thorough when discussing last weekend’s blowout loss to Iowa.
The Michigan State coach’s weekly video conference with reporters went on for about 45 minutes, and he set the tone right from the start.
“Last week’s game was unacceptable,” said Tucker, whose team lost 49-7. “I hold, and will continue to hold this team to a higher standard of performance.”
Michigan State fans are still getting to know their new coach, and this week will be a test of how well Tucker rallies his team after it was on the wrong end of a rout. The Spartans already rebounded well from one loss this year — they beat Michigan a week after dropping their opener to Rutgers — but last weekend’s defeat was so comprehensive that it’s clear Michigan State has a lot of work to do.
“We’re going to find out who wants to get better, who can get better, and we’re going to coach them in that manner,” Tucker said Tuesday. “And I expect to see a better football team out there this Saturday than what I saw out there in Iowa.”
Tucker’s comments made it clear this would be an important week of practice. After taking over following Mark Dantonio’s retirement in February, his offseason was limited by the coronavirus. Building a culture at his new program may take time, and weeks like this can shed some light on how effective a new coach can be in motivating his players.
“Our practices have been very physical the past two days,” receiver Jalen Nailor said Wednesday. “Just getting after it, just not taking plays off, just pushing through the grind, just knowing that we have another game. We have more games to play, and that one game’s not going to affect us.”
When Tucker was asked about discipline, fundamentals and the team’s margin for error this weekend against No. 10 Indiana, his response went on for about five minutes.
“We’re tightening the screws every possible way that we can, because the key is, you need to be able to make the practices, and the environment in practice, harder than the game,” Tucker said. “If you can’t do that, when you get in the game, then you can’t have the success that you want.”
Michigan State turned the ball over seven times in that season-opening loss to Rutgers. The turnovers were such an obvious problem that they overshadowed a lot of other issues for the Spartans. Then they went on the road and beat rival Michigan as a huge underdog.
The Iowa game was a reality check, and there’s no easy explanation, no one area for the Spartans to focus on fixing. Rocky Lombardi threw three interceptions, and Michigan State was outrushed 226-59. It was 35-0 at halftime.
“Every week I ask the coaches, ‘On your side of the ball, who played well, who played poorly and then who needs to make a move?’” Tucker said. “Offense, defense and special teams, we had a hard time finding guys that played well. It was hard to find anyone that we felt like played at a high level in that game. And from a coaching standpoint, we need to coach better.”
So the sense now is that it’s back to the basics for Michigan State. With a nationally ranked team coming to town this week, the Spartans have a lot of room for improvement.
“You cannot scheme your way out of a game if you don’t play with technique and fundamentals and discipline and things like that — and mental and physical toughness,” Tucker said. “That’s where we are this week.”
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