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After 'punch in the stomach,' Michigan State vows to be ready when football returns

Matt Charboneau
The Detroit News

Matt Allen knew something was up.

Michigan State was about halfway through its practice on Aug. 11, just its fourth workout of preseason camp. Still broken up into groups, coach Mel Tucker summoned the entire team to the middle of the indoor field at the Duffy Daugherty Building.

Michigan State offensive lineman Matt Allen (64) plans to play his final season with the Spartans, whenever it takes place.

“At about Period 11 of a 20-period practice, Coach Tucker pulled us all in ‘The Weave,’” Allen said, referencing the nickname for the indoor field. “It was kind of like suspicious because we've never done anything like that, so we were kind of expecting the worst.”

They were expecting the worst because for the previous two days, rumors had been swirling that the Big Ten was on the verge of canceling its fall season, including postponing the football season. In fact, Michigan State was scheduled to practice a day earlier, but that was changed abruptly and it became a day off.

By that Tuesday morning, it seemed the cancellation of Big Ten football was inevitable. Early in the afternoon, it was official and Tucker — the first-year coach who has been navigating hurdles since the day he was hired in early February — was tasked with breaking the news to his team.

Just days after the Big Ten released a 10-game, conference-only schedule, everything was off.

“When they released the schedule it gave us a little bit of like false hope I would say,” said Allen, the fifth-year senior offensive lineman. “Everybody was getting ready for the season in the fall and starting to get excited to be playing football again and be back in Spartan Stadium. And then when they came out with the news it was kind of just like another punch to the stomach. It just kind of took the air out of us for a second.”

It was a bitter pill to swallow for every team around the Big Ten, but it was especially tough for those that were preparing for their final season or getting ready to head into next spring looking forward to a shot at the NFL.

For senior linebacker Antjuan Simmons, momentum was just starting to build by early August, even after the Spartans lost their spring practices and had to endure a two-week quarantine during voluntary workouts in late July.

“I was excited because I felt like I had one of my best offseasons,” said Simmons, a senior linebacker. “It was a little devastating, but at the same time, I feel like I'm at a point in my life where I can handle just about anything that gets thrown at me. Whether it's football-related or just in life in general, just take everything with a grain of salt and look at it at how you can get better, or find a way to improve or make the most out of your situation.”

By the next morning, Michigan State already was dealing with a new reality, trying to make the most of its situation. Tucker and strength coach Jason Novak kicked off a six-week conditioning program heavy on the strength side. It provided a chance to make up for so much lost time in the spring and summer, allowing the Spartans to prepare for what they hope is a season beginning sometime after the first of the year.

While they were busy hitting the weight room, many other players around the Big Ten were wondering why they weren’t playing. Ohio State quarterback Justin Fields started an online petition asking the conference to reconsider while many others joined Fields in that quest.

At Michigan State, there was certainly frustration, but in general, there was also understanding at what the Big Ten and commissioner Kevin Warren decided.

“I wanted to play,” Simmons said. “I firmly believe that everybody wanted to play. It's just the fact that the conference couldn't give us everything we needed and provide us with everything we needed to have a safe environment that we could play football. So, I understand where Commissioner Warren and the rest of the conference was coming from in postponing the season.

Added senior defensive back Dominique Long, “At the end of the day I think that nobody can be really too mad at the decision made because safety should be a top priority. So we understand why they did what they did. When the time comes, we'll be ready to play.”

Mel Tucker

The players said Michigan State did everything it could to follow the proper safety protocols, even with the 14-day quarantine that ended just days before preseason camp started.

“I felt really safe in the building and I thought we really were going to be able to finish out the season,” said Allen, whose older brother Brian, a former Spartan playing in the NFL with the Los Angeles Rams, tested positive for COVID-19 in the spring. “But the Big Ten had to make a decision and I think it was the right decision at the end of the day just to keep everybody healthy and safe. But I'm a little bummed obviously, the season got canceled. But I'm still looking forward to a season in the spring or season in the fall whenever it comes. I'll be ready.”

Michigan State expects to be ready, too. In fact, the unexpected break could turn out to be just what the Spartans needed.

Tucker wasn’t hired until Feb. 12 and when spring practice was canceled, he and his staff were playing from behind. Add in the quarantine just before preseason camp and the first-year staff looking to fill plenty of holes in the depth chart was in a tough spot.

From quarterback to cornerback, the Spartans are looking for answers, and now they have more time to figure it all out. Soon, though, they’ll get back on the field. When it is, they don’t know, but in the meantime, they’ll be working hard to be prepared.

“It’s just, how can we continue to improve because we're gonna play one day,” junior quarterback Rocky Lombardi said. “Maybe it's not this fall, maybe it's not the spring, but eventually we're going to play. So how can we keep improving, how can we stay focused on the task at hand.”

mcharboneau@detroitnews.com

Twitter: @mattcharboneau