Mel Tucker faces his first Michigan State mini-crisis

Kickoff temperature in East Lansing was a glorious 61 degrees on Saturday. You couldn’t ask for a more welcoming embrace for the first football game following the autumnal equinox.

Yet Michigan State coach Mel Tucker looked as if he was coaching a game somewhere near the equator. It didn’t take the internet long to notice.

Jokes aside, Tucker’s Spartans are giving him pretty good reason to perspire at the moment.

Four games into the season, Michigan State has already equaled last year’s total loss. And based on what is in front of the Spartans, the odds of running the table are about nil.

The good news for Tucker is that a guaranteed $95 million over the next decade can buy many towels of the finest Turkish cotton to address the issue. But that’s of little comfort to Michigan State fans. Or even to Tucker’s competitive nature, which produces very visible results.

It’s not as if Tucker is under any real pressure right now. His seat is about as warm as Iron Mountain on New Year’s morning. But Michigan State’s 2-game losing streak still counts as his first mini-crisis since taking the job.

Nothing from 2020 really counts. Everyone on the planet was just trying to make it day-to-day, and Tucker had the challenges of being a first-year coach at a major football program on top of that.

With a real offseason to prepare for a full season, Tucker led Michigan State to No. 9 nationally in 2021 after winning the Peach Bowl. “Tuck Comin’” became the MSU catchphrase as Tucker seemed to have the Spartans on the rise on the field and on the recruiting trail.

The recruiting element remains true. Michigan State’s 2022 class is rated fourth in the B1G according to 247Sports, and its verbal commits from the 2023 class are rated third.

But the promising future outlook does nothing to alter Michigan State’s current state. And it’s fair to wonder whether this season’s ship can be righted.

The injury bug

As has already been noted in this space, injuries have plagued the Spartans this year.

Football is no different than baseball in one respect — the strength of a defense runs through the middle. In baseball, that’s a shortstop, second baseman and center fielder. In football, it means defensive tackle, middle linebacker and safety.

It’s perhaps less of a truism today than it was for decades as football becomes more perimeter-oriented. But for the most part, it sums up how defense is played in the Big Ten. And that’s where Michigan State is getting clobbered right now.

The most important players on Michigan State’s defense are defensive tackle Jacob Slade, middle linebacker Cal Haladay and safety Xavier Henderson. Having all 3 on the field makes the Spartans sound enough to unleash their most talented defensive player, outside linebacker Jacoby Windmon.

Slade and Henderson have been out with injuries, and their absences were glaring against Washington and Minnesota. After racking up 12 sacks against overmatched Western Michigan and Akron, Michigan State didn’t get any against the Huskies or Gophers. Quarterbacks Michael Penix and Tanner Morgan used their abundant time to eviscerate Michigan State’s already questionable pass defense.

Pass rush or bust

Michigan State’s biggest weakness coming into the season was no mystery. The Spartans allowed more passing yards than any team in the country in 2021 – 4,222 yards.

Michigan State wasn’t just the nation’s worst pass defense by a wide margin. It was the nation’s worst pass defense in half a decade. No team since Pitt in 2016 surrendered more passing yards in a season.

A defensive coordinator by nature, Tucker wasn’t going to take those results lying down. And his solution was quite novel. This wasn’t about the defensive backs, but quarterbacks having too much time to find their receivers.

Tucker hired Brandon Jordan out of the private sector as a full-time pass rushing coach. And along with Jordan came one of his training pupils — Windmon, who transferred from UNLV.

The first 2 games were a rousing success. Windmon led the nation with 5.5 sacks, and Michigan State allowed just 5.6 yards per pass attempt.

But with Windmon and every other Spartan contained by Washington and Minnesota’s rock-solid offensive lines, Michigan State’s back end was back to its old ways. The Huskies and Gophers averaged 10.1 yards per attempt against the Spartans. And at the moment, only 2 defenses in the country are giving up 10.1 or more yards per attempt for the season.

Michigan State’s pass defense could be treading back into those murky waters if it cannot create pressure.

No runners without Walker

Shoddy pass defense only hurt the Spartans against quarterbacks able to fully exploit it in 2021 — Purdue’s Aidan O’Connell and Ohio State’s CJ Stroud.

For the most part, Michigan State had enough strengths to gloss over its weaknesses. And those strengths began with the nation’s best running back, Kenneth Walker III. Walker led the Big Ten and ranked second in the country with 136.3 yards per game.

Walker’s fairly ordinary replacements are highlighting just how special he was.

Jalen Berger is averaging 66.8 yards per game and 5.3 per carry. Jarek Broussard averages 40.3 yards per game and 4.6 per carry. And that adds up to 2 backs combining to produce 30 yards per game less than Walker did by himself.

Michigan State’s offense is not built to handle the drop from being led by the nation’s No. 2 rusher to be led by the No. 77 rushers.

Trouble ahead, trouble behind

Things are not about to get easier. The Spartans are steaming straight into matchups against opponents who can protect their quarterbacks and decimate Michigan State through the air — Maryland and Ohio State.

It’s not just that the Terps and Buckeyes have the best 2 receiving corps in the B1G, which they do. But both are also pretty solid up front. Ohio State has only allowed 2 sacks. Maryland is at the national median with 7 sacks allowed through 4 games.

There’s a very good chance this 2-game losing streak will bloom into 4 by the time the Spartans host Wisconsin for homecoming. After last year’s thrill ride, that’s the grim new reality Michigan State fans must adjust to.

But that doesn’t mean this season is already a wash.

Wisconsin is clearly a beatable opponent given its challenges passing the ball. And Tucker has a bye week before his opportunity to improve his record to 3-0 against Jim Harbaugh. Ideally, by that point Michigan State will have some semblance of the defense it thought it would field this season. And ruining Michigan’s season is always a win no matter what shape Michigan State is in.

This 4-week stretch may well end up being the nadir of Tucker’s entire Michigan State career. If the Spartans can salvage their November, it could be remembered as his “if we could get through that, we can get through anything” moment.

Tucker has a mini-crisis on his hands. Now his goal is preventing it from morphing into a full-blown one.

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