Mel Tucker faces Wolverines, history in trying to get staggered Spartans on track

Matt Charboneau
The Detroit News

Even with a mask covering half his face, the disappointment was clear on Mel Tucker’s face.

Michigan State had just lost Tucker’s first game as the Spartans’ head coach, turning the ball over seven times on the way to losing to a Rutgers team that entered the game on a 21-game Big Ten skid.

Michigan State head coach Mel Tucker lost to Rutgers in his debut Saturday.

But even as the coach lamented the turnovers and talked about his team playing to a higher standard, what’s next for the Spartans became quite clear.

“We've got a big game; we've got Michigan next week,” Tucker said. “We've got to focus on controlling what we can control. We have got to continue moving forward. This is the beginning; this is not the end and this is a process.”

That’s right. Still searching for that first victory, Tucker will head to Ann Arbor on Saturday to try and find it, and in the process, immerse himself — once again — into a sometimes bitter rivalry.

To say the odds are stacked against Michigan State (0-1) pulling off the upset over No. 14 Michigan would be an understatement.

While the Spartans turned in a sloppy, head-scratching performance to open the delayed season, the Wolverines looked like they were already in midseason form. After a rough start, Michigan’s offense took off on the way to an impressive 49-24 win at Minnesota against a Golden Gophers team many expect to contend for the West Division title.

On top of that, there’s history. Only one Michigan State coach has beaten Michigan in his first meeting. That was some guy named Nick Saban, who was at the helm when the Spartans rallied at home in 1995 to beat the Wolverines, 28-25.

No other coach has managed to win that first meeting with the Wolverines. Not Biggie Munn. Not Duffy Daugherty. Not George Perles. Not even Mark Dantonio, who compiled an 8-5 record against Michigan after losing in the final minutes of his first meeting, the game that produced Mike Hart’s “little brother” comment that still dominates the rivalry to this day.

But Saban’s win is what Tucker will be trying to match. That epic November evening featured snow flurries, a packed house and a wild finish. Trailing by four, Michigan State went on an 88-yard drive that included a fourth-and-11 conversion and ended with quarterback Tony Banks rolling to his right and hitting Nigea Carter with a 25-yard touchdown pass with less than two minutes to play.

Who’s to say if something similar is in store for Tucker and the Spartans this week, but it would need a similar effort from 25 years ago. Saban’s team was a decided underdog that day, entering with a 4-3-1 record against the seventh-ranked Wolverines. Michigan is favored by 24 points this time.

Of course, rarely has any of that mattered in this series, and Tucker made it clear soon after he was hired that playing Michigan is different than the rest.

“The Michigan game is not just another game,” he said in February. “That’s something that we embrace. I don’t believe in downplaying expectations — that’s useless.

“There’s rivalry games that are different than other games. You can say that a game is a game, and they’re all the same, we want to win every game but, hey, let’s be honest: Michigan State-Michigan is different. And I understand that.”

That, of course, was eight months ago.

Now, Tucker is doing what he can to fix a long list of issues from the opener, including cutting down on the turnovers, finding a running game and limiting the penalties.

If he can do that, he’ll give himself a fighting chance to join his former boss and win his first meeting against Michigan.

“You usually make the most improvement between the first and second game,” Tucker said. “We have to stay with our process. We have to correct our mistakes, because our guys are coachable, we respect them, they respect our staff. We will be able to able make those corrections. We will be able to improve, and that is going to start right away. Our guys understand that.

“So, I am looking forward to watching this film, and see where we need to improve and making those corrections and getting ready for Michigan.”

Twitter: @mattcharboneau

Daunting debuts

Since joining the Big Ten in 1949, Michigan State’s coaches have struggled in their first game against Michigan. Here’s the breakdown, which includes each coach's career record vs. Michigan while at Michigan State:

Biggie Munn*: lost, 55-0 (4-3 overall vs. UM)

Duffy Daugherty: lost 33-7 (10-7-2)

Denny Stolz: lost 31-0 (0-3)

Darryl Rogers: lost 42-10 (1-3)

Muddy Waters: lost 27-23 (0-3)

George Perles: lost 42-0 (3-9)

Nick Saban: won 28-25 (2-3)

Bobby Williams: lost 14-0 (1-2)

John L. Smith: lost 27-20 (0-4)

Mark Dantonio: lost, 28-24 (8-5)

*Munn’s first season at MSU and first meeting with Michigan came in 1947, two years before MSU entered the Big Ten. His first conference game against the Wolverines in 1949 resulted in a 7-3 Michigan win.