Michigan State football: Analyzing MSU’s 29-7 loss at Michigan (video)
Lansing State Journal columnist Graham Couch and Detroit Free Press beat writer Chris Solari break down MSU’s 29-7 loss at U-M and the scuffle after
Graham Couch and Chris Solari, Lansing State Journal
A year ago today, Mel Tucker celebrated one of his best days as Michigan State football’s coach. It was a joyous afternoon marked by a thrilling conquest of the Spartans’ greatest rival on the grandest of stages.
His players stormed into their own locker room and danced, posing for pictures with the Paul Bunyan Trophy they had retained after beating Michigan football by four points. Tucker’s father even joined in the fun, arranging his own photo with the wooden lumberjack.
“Those are memories,” Tucker said wistfully on Oct. 30, 2021. “That’s one of the things about football, is the locker room, especially after a victory. There’s nothing like it. … It’s an honor and privilege to be a part of something like that.”
In that moment, Tucker didn’t take it for granted, knowing how fleeting that euphoria can be in such an unforgiving sport. He was reminded of that late Saturday at the tail end of one of his worst weeks as MSU’s coach, when the program absorbed a series of blows that dented its record, its pride, its reputation and its future.
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Asked about his team’s mood following a 29-7 loss to the Wolverines, Tucker responded, “Very disappointed, as you can imagine.”
The defeat, MSU’s fifth in its past six games, was overshadowed by a disturbing episode in the Michigan Stadium tunnel afterward, when Wolverines defensive back Ja’Den McBurrows was besieged by a group of Spartans players. McBurrows was buffeted by punches and kicks. Another member of the Wolverines was also “assaulted,” according to U-M coach Jim Harbaugh.
“It’s pretty bad,” Harbaugh said.
U-M athletic director Warde Manuel added that the “police are looking into it” and described the incident as “completely and utterly unacceptable.”
The fracas resulted in another black eye for Tucker’s program after it was beat up on the field earlier in the night. A pliant defense bent for much of the night before snapping under the pressure applied by Michigan’s ground attack, which chewed through the Spartans en route to 276 rushing yards. The offense, jolted briefly by receiver Keon Coleman’s exploits in the opening quarter, eventually flatlined with the minimum nine plays in their first three possessions of the second half. The Spartans were weighed down once again by a comatose running game that has been a liability since Kenneth Walker III left for the NFL. On Saturday, MSU finished with only 37 yards on 23 carries, and was stopped in its tracks during two critical fourth-down situations.
“It’s sickening,” quarterback Payton Thorne said afterward. “It’s really frustrating.”
Before the game, Kedrick Reescano had offered hope he would be among the players who would reinvigorate the sagging Spartans.
The four-star running back from New Caney, Texas, was the third-best prospect in Michigan State’s 2023 class — until Thursday, when he announced he had withdrawn his commitment. The loss of Reescano was a major blow for Tucker, who surfed a wave of momentum after the MSU’s surprising 11-2 season last fall. Boosted by the $95 million extension he signed last November, he launched an ambitious campaign to attract talent from all sections of the country. Over the late spring and into the summer, it seemed to be working as Tucker began assembling a promising collection of players. But Reescano became the second blue-chip recruit to rescind his pledge this month, and others could soon follow if MSU continues to stumble.
After carving through Tucker’s team with 179 yards from scrimmage and two touchdowns, running back Blake Corum cackled at the misfortune that has befallen Michigan State’s coach.
“I thought Tuck was comin’,” he crowed. “I thought Tuck was comin’. That’s what they said this offseason, right? All them shirts? Tuck was comin’. I just saw him running.”
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The comments were so acerbic and snide that on any other day, in any other setting, they may have elicited sympathy for Tucker.
But not this evening, in this dim corridor, when Tucker’s own players were seen swarming McBurrows in an ugly scene. Instead, it was Harbaugh who invited compassion and empathy as he expressed outrage at what happened.
“Just very unfortunate,” he said. “Like anybody, you want to protect your players. Ten on one, whatever it was, was just bad.”
Tucker said he didn’t know what happened and thus declined to comment. But it’s uncertain if any explanation would have sufficed. By the time video of the ruckus began to circulate, the goodwill Tucker had accumulated in his first two seasons as the plucky leader of an upstart program had been exhausted. His team is unraveling after suffering the 12th double-digit loss of his tenure. His biggest rival finally got the best of him, erasing the psychological edge Tucker had established. Worst of all, his program’s future looks less promising that it did a short time ago.
On the one-year anniversary of his most satisfying triumph as MSU’s coach, Tucker has arrived at a low point in his tenure.
Smarting from the defeat to Michigan, he said, “We didn’t get it done.”
It has been the story of Tucker’s third season, when so much had already been lost before Michigan State relinquished Paul Bunyan — and perhaps its honor, too.