With Washington football hosting No.11 Michigan State Saturday evening, The Daily sat down with Alex Faber of The State News to get a rundown on the Spartans.
Note: The following has been modified for clarity and accuracy
For Washington, this is one of the biggest home games in recent memory. What does this game mean for Michigan State?
Last year was head coach Mel Tucker’s second year in the program. They were 2-0 against inferior opponents, and they traveled on the road against a talented team, a historically good program in Miami. That really set the tone for the rest of the season, they went on to go 11-2, and ended up winning the Peach Bowl against Pitt. In a lot of ways, it felt like the momentum for the season started at Miami. You look over at Washington, last year they weren’t the best, but they’re a historically good program. I think that this game matters a lot to the team, because they can build that storied momentum again. Tucker, in his press conference, did not want any comparisons to that — he’s very much a “one game at a time” guy. But if you’re a journalist or just a fan, you’re gonna look at this and say, “This could be this team’s Miami game,” where they go on the road in a hostile environment, get a win against a Power Five program, and start building momentum heading into the Big Ten. So, I think this is a pretty big game for MSU.
After 11 wins last year, what is the ultimate aspiration for Michigan State this season?
I’m not sure how Washington Twitter is for their fans, but MSU Twitter can get a bit toxic at times. If you pick anything less than 10-2, people’s heads explode. I think a realistic ask is to go something along the lines of 9-3, 10-2. Ohio State is just so much better, Michigan is probably still better. I think it’s unrealistic to ask Tucker to go ahead and win the Big Ten right away. Coming from a student at Michigan State, I think last year was a little fluky. I think running back Kenneth Walker III certainly helped cover up some of the issues with this team. I don’t think the expectation for this team is the Big Ten championship just quite yet, but I think going 9-3 or 10-2, and putting yourself up there in the top-15 as one of the better programs in the nation, I think that’s a reasonable expectation.
Where does the strength lie in Michigan State’s offense?
Through two games, quarterback Payton Thorne has not been very good. He’s been overthrowing a few of his receivers, but the real strength so far has been the running backs. We went back to the transfer portal and snagged Jarek Broussard from Colorado, and Jalen Berger from Wisconsin. It’s a stereotype, but it’s a two-headed monster. It looks like Berger and Broussard are going to split carries, with Berger getting a little bit more because he’s just a little more athletic and talented. But they’re going to run the rock constantly, and it’s one of those things where Broussard will carry the offense for a series. Then, when they get to the goal line, they bring in those fresh legs with Berger and just punch it into the end zone. So, they’ve got that real one-two punch at running back, and the offensive line looks improved too. There are certainly some weapons on offense, a couple young receivers who could break out. Jayden Reed was electric a year ago, and he’s back this year. He’s a guy always to look out for, but he might be out for this game. But offensively, the strength this year is running again, unless Thorne can take that next step.
For as good as Michigan State was last year, the passing defense was statistically atrocious. What led to the poor passing defense statistics last year, and has it turned around this year?
That was a combination of things. There was just not a lot of depth in the secondary, honestly. Charles Brantley got injured, the only star player in the secondary, and safety Xavier Henderson is injured this season. A lot of it also has to do with scheming. Tucker won’t say this, but it seemed like “bend but don’t break” was really the philosophy of the team last year, where they’re okay with giving away those chunk plays, but they don’t want to give up the big play and consistent long runs. A year later, it’s hard to tell. That’s what this game is really going to tell us. Washington quarterback Michael Penix Jr. is a familiar guy, he is really going to test this secondary, and I honestly couldn’t tell you how good they are. They looked better, they forced four fumbles against Akron last week, they’ve been flying to the ball and zipping around, but they still were giving up 10-, 12-yard passes they should not have. I honestly can’t give a firm answer just yet, but it looks improved, tentatively.
What makes Mel Tucker so successful in East Lansing?
It was just the right hire at the right time, I think. If you hire this guy in like 2013, 2014, when the Big Ten was literally just I-formation, run it up the middle a million times in that classic bruising style, I don’t think Tucker is a successful hire. But he comes in as “name, image, and likeness” (NIL) is becoming this big thing, he’s really latched onto that internet presence, the “Tuck Comin’” trend, and all the things that might grate on other people really speak to the recruits. He’s leaned into NIL, he’s leaned into the transfer portal, I think he’s just a modern coach who’s coming in at the perfect time. I don’t know if it’s anything schematically — it’s not like Lincoln Riley who was just constantly bringing up new schemes as an electric offensive play-caller. I think Tucker is just a player’s coach who’s coming in at the right time, taking advantage of NIL, and taking advantage of the transfer portal to build something special.
Score prediction for Saturday evening?
I’m gonna go 23-20, MSU, in a gross game. I think Penix Jr. is probably gonna light us up, but I think with MSU’s run game, they’re going to win the time of possession by a lot, and I think they’ll sneak off with a win.
Reach Alex Faber at email@example.com
Reach Sports Editor Ethan Kilbreath at firstname.lastname@example.org. Twitter: @EthanArles
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