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Mel Tucker no stranger to UM-MSU rivalry: 'This is not just another game'

Matt Charboneau
The Detroit News

After nearly a quarter-century of coaching, rivalries are hardly new to Mel Tucker.

And the one he’s now fully immersed in — Michigan State and Michigan — is not foreign, either. Tucker’s first coaching gig was as a graduate assistant for the Spartans under Nick Saban back in 1997 and ’98, and there was never any question as to how important that game was to the former MSU and current Alabama head coach.

So, Tucker has a fairly good handle on what it means when Michigan State heads to Ann Arbor to take on Michigan at noon on Saturday.

“Obviously, this game against the school down the road is not just another game,” Tucker said during his weekly press conference on Tuesday. “It’s really special to me, special to our players; it's very important to our coaches, to our former players and to our fans and the people in the state of Michigan. And so it's a special game and we treat it as such.”

Yes, that school up the road, or down the road if you’re worried about the proper slang terms in a state where so many people spend the summer going up north.

That school, of course, is Michigan, not that Tucker was in any hurry to mention the Wolverines by name. It's akin to how Ohio State has referenced Michigan for years — Tucker was an assistant for the Buckeyes from 2001-04 — and how Michigan has, at times, referred to the Buckeyes as simply Ohio.

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It’s something that Spartans fans might chuckle at and something Wolverines fans certainly see as petty, but it clearly only happens because of the what this rivalry has become. And while it’s far from the recent bulletin-board material of “little brother” or “pride comes before the fall,” it at least shows Tucker isn’t looking at this as any other game.

“I don't think there's any question from anyone who we’re playing this week,” Tucker said. “It’s the school down the road. I think we all know who that is. I think it's pretty obvious.”

Mel Tucker will make his head-coaching debut in the Michigan-Michigan State rivalry game this weekend.

Will Michigan use it as motivation? Perhaps. More likely, it will simply become something for fans to use as they argue with each other on social media.

What matters more to Michigan State, in this moment, is the fact that it has a head coach that understands the importance of the game. Saban did. Mark Dantonio certainly did. And as a member of the same coaching tree, so does Tucker, whose experienced some of the game’s most intense rivalries at both the college and pro level.

“I do remember vividly how we embraced that game,” Tucker said of his early years in East Lansing. “I’ve had some pretty good mentors that I’ve worked with that embrace rivalry games, and at that time with Coach Saban, it was made to be a special game. An emphasis was put on it, and I can remember the intensity going into the game and the preparation.

“When you have these rivalry games, it's just different, there's just no way around it. The places that I've been, I've been very fortunate — as a player, as a coach — to be a part of these rivalry games. Whether it’s Auburn-Alabama, or Georgia-Florida, Ohio State-Michigan, Michigan-Michigan State, Chicago-Green Bay, Cleveland-Pittsburgh. In all of those rivalry games, we've embraced those games and really treat them special. That’s no different here and we know this. This is not just another game.”

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

While it’s not just another game, it is the next one on the schedule, which happens to come after a season-opening loss to Rutgers that has some hitting the panic button. The Spartans turned the ball over seven times in the game and gave it up on downs twice while it couldn’t run the ball, averaging barely more than a yard per carry.

Combined with Michigan’s impressive win over Minnesota, the Spartans are in a tough spot. Of course, Tucker’s focus — beyond the intensity of the rivalry — is fixing the issues that led to the loss to Rutgers.

“We see the things that need to be corrected and have put a plan in place to do that,” Tucker said, “and to make sure the players understand where we fell short and then how we can get better and give them a path to success. …Then you quickly turn the page and focus on the next game and we've done that. We’re well on to our game plan for the school up the road and so our focus is a laser focus on this game.”

One of the bright spots from the Rutgers game was the play of junior quarterback Rocky Lombardi. He missed a couple open throws and had two interceptions, but he moved the offense even without a running attack and threw three touchdown passes.

He knows this week’s game has a different feel, and he’s not shying away from it.

“This is a huge game for us,” said Lombardi, who along with senior Antjuan Simmons has already clued the freshmen in to what they’re about to experience. “Everybody knows it’s a huge game for our program.

"But ultimately, we try to prepare as well as we can for every game. It’s not like we don't prepare to the best of our abilities every week, but I'm definitely not downplaying the importance of this game for us and our program. This is a big deal for us and we're gonna go out and give it our best shot.”

mcharboneau@detroitnews.com

Twitter: @mattcharboneau