EAST LANSING — Mel Tucker beamed with pride. Michigan State football had finished off a stunning upset of Northwestern moments earlier, his offense pushing the Wildcats around and his defense swarming all evening. It was as complete a football game as the Spartans had played in perhaps five years.
But Tucker quickly returned to his policy of neutral thinking, one used often already during his first year with the Spartans.
“You’re only as good as your next game,” Tucker said Saturday.
Yet as the jubilation fades, MSU returns to its status two weeks ago: Wondering when that next game might come.
It was clear on Nov. 14, when the Spartans left Spartan Stadium following a demoralizing 24-0 loss, that their game against Maryland was in jeopardy. The Terrapins’ game vs. Ohio State that weekend had been canceled. The Terps eventually called off MSU’s road trip for Nov. 21, two days ahead of time. Those five days of uncertainty were unlike anything Tucker — or anyone inside his program — had previously dealt with.
And now, coming off Saturday’s exhilarating 29-20 upset of then-No. 13 Northwestern, it is right back into limbo. The fourth-ranked Buckeyes are experiencing their own outbreak of COVID-19, with two cancellations already this season (including Saturday at Illinois) putting a potential Big Ten championship game trip into jeopardy. It makes traveling to MSU in a few days much more critical for OSU than it seemed two weeks ago.
Tucker and his players already know what to expect this week. They’ve been through this waiting game before. They used that time to go from one of the lowest moments in two decades at Spartan Stadium to one of the most unexpected highlights.
“I commended the team this morning in our team meeting about exactly that, handling that situation where you get you find out on a Thursday morning that you’re not gonna play and then quickly pivoting into a pseudo bye week,” said Tucker, whose two wins in his debut season have come against ranked opponents. “We talked about winning that weekend, winning that Friday, that Saturday, that Sunday, and we did that. And then coming back with a normal week Monday, but having a holiday there — which was not a normal Thanksgiving — and how we handled that. Players embraced the protocols and behavior modification that we needed to have to be able to stay focused and get to Saturday.”
MSU also used that extra time to begin preparing for Northwestern. Also, senior linebacker Antjuan Simmons said the additional rest time during a season twithout any scheduled byes helped.
“Guys were banged up, guys were able to get their legs back up under them and let the bruises, the bumps heal,” he said.” And really just the mental aspect of the game. … We had a week and a half to watch film on them and really find out who they were as a team, what they could do, what they couldn’t do. And we just knew we had to come out and play hard.”
There are two times when a team wants to get back onto the field immediately: To erase the bitterness after a humiliating loss, and when it is performing with precision it does not want interrupted. MSU’s additional days of preparation kept that lackluster showing against the Hoosiers front-of-mind for the players. And it allowed them to do some soul searching during the holiday week.
“Honestly, I think we’re tired of losing. I think that’s what it comes down to,” quarterback Rocky Lombardi said. “We want to win, and we know that we got the players to win. I think it helped us just kind of lock in and regroup together.”
Building on the progress made between that Indiana debacle — the Spartans’ first home shutout loss in 35 years — and Saturday’s mostly punishing performance against a quality Northwestern defense goes along with everything Tucker has said during this interrupted and abbreviated Big Ten season.
“Credit goes to our players, for not just doing the things that we asked them to do, but understanding why and understanding what are we here for,” Tucker said. “We’ve opted in, we’ve all opted in, we’ve opted in for a reason — we want to play, and we want to get better and we want to reach our full potential.”
The irony is strong in that statement — Tucker and his players were extraordinaily quiet during the Big Ten infighting between the Aug. 11 announcement to shut down all fall sports and the Sept. 16 decision to bring back football. Meanwhile, the schools who were the most vocal about returning to the field appear to be getting some karmic retribution.
Nebraska and Michigan are both 1-5 after lofty preseason expectations. And Ohio State, with a team it felt had a chance to win a national championship, sits on the brink of the virus torpedoing its Big Ten title hopes, at the least.
For MSU, this season was never about competing for a championship. Not with a late winter coaching change, no spring practice and a summer in COVID-induced limbo. It was always about players learning who they are, individually and collectively. Many felt the Spartans might have been helped more than any other program by a proposed postponement of the season until spring.
Instead, Tucker’s take-it-as-it-comes approach has resulted in a win over the Wolverines that few saw coming, and a late-season stunner against the Wildcats that suggests his vision of MSU’s future in on track.
“The locker room was electric, it was live. Guys were in there dancing and going crazy,” Simmons said. “You definitely just had to soak it all in and just take it all in and just enjoy the moment, because you don’t get too many of those.”
And perhaps not many chances for the Spartans to play this fall, as the college football calendar continues to shrink around them.
This article originally appeared on Detroit Free Press: Michigan State football prepping for another week in limbo