Mel Tucker: Fundamentals, execution will determine how far MSU goes

Matt Charboneau
The Detroit News

Things are going to look different when Michigan State takes the field Saturday.

There’s little doubt of that considering it will be Mel Tucker’s first game as the Spartans’ head coach and he’ll have staff that is almost entirely new from the last group that joined former coach Mark Dantonio, who retired in February after 13 seasons and finished as the program’s winningest coach.

But adjusting to a new coaching staff and plenty of new faces on the field — for example, only three starters return on defense for Michigan State — is just one obstacle for the Spartans. On the other side of the ball, there’s been an overhaul, as well.

Antjuan Simmons (34)

After Rutgers fired coach Chris Ash during the 2019 season, Greg Schiano has returned to coach the Scarlet Knights, the same post he held from 2001-11 before departing for the NFL and two years leading the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.

Schiano spent the past three seasons as the defensive coordinator at Ohio State, meaning the Spartans are familiar with his coaching style. However, with a new staff and a far different roster, game-planning has been a bit more difficult this week.

“When you go into the first game of the season, you're expecting some unscouted looks,” Tucker said. “You’re not quite sure exactly what you're going to see. We told our players that this is going to be a rules game. On offense, defense and special teams, you're going to have to apply your rules to what you see on the field, and then we'll have to be able to adapt and adjust during the game, in between plays, in between series.”

It’s not all unknown, though. Schiano has been around a long time and has coached in high-profile positions, so finding film on his teams is not tough.

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Also, the Spartans have looked at film from Minnesota and Arkansas, where Rutgers defensive coordinator Robb Smith was also a coordinator, as well as Oklahoma State, where offensive coordinator Sam Gleeson ran the show in 2019.

“We’ve done scouting reports on not just the players, but also the coaching staff and the coordinators,” Tucker said. “We know where they have been and what they've done and so we've studied film from those places. But obviously, we’ll have to see on Saturday what they are and what they do.”

Fifth-year senior center Matt Allen has seen plenty of different defensive fronts, so he and the rest of the offense are doing whatever they can to pick up some hints as to what the Spartans might see on Saturday.

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But, there is always a certain level of unknown, regardless of the opponent.

“You can never really tell what they're going to do until they get out there,” Allen said. “So, we're preparing for them and we've been watching a ton of film, whether that be like Ohio State, Minnesota or Rutgers. We’re getting ready, physically and mentally, and the coaches have been doing a great job of getting us prepared to go.”

The defense is approaching things the same way. And for senior linebacker Antjuan Simmons there’s no doubt that Michigan State will face a challenge.

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“I'm definitely expecting a good team,” Simmons said. “I know Coach Schiano through recruiting and stuff and he's always been a been a great coach at Ohio State, the NFL. So, we're expecting a good team to show up on Saturday, a disciplined team that's going to come after you. Even previous Rutgers teams came after you. They’ve never been just somebody you can just show up, or whatever. They’ve always been a physical team and we know they are going to show up.

“This conference isn't an easy conference. You’re going to be playing somebody challenging every week. You’re going to get hit every week, that's guaranteed.”

Tucker is counting on that from Rutgers, too. He’s also counting on his team to play with a certain edge, and that won’t change based on which team is lining up on the other side of the line of scrimmage.

“It’s going to be important for us to play our brand of football,” Tucker said. “It’s going to be a lot about what we do and how we execute our plan — how hard we play, the technique and fundamentals, how smart we play, how fast we play, how physical we play. That's going to be the determining factor on what type of success we have on Saturday.”

Twitter: @mattcharboneau