Michigan State vows to 'come ready to work' to move past Iowa debacle, early struggles

Matt Charboneau
The Detroit News

Iowa City, Iowa — Antjuan Simmons kept pounding his fist into the table, doing his level-best to hammer home his point.

The Michigan State senior linebacker had just forced himself through the Spartans’ 49-7 loss at Iowa, far from 100% healthy but doing his best to play as many snaps as he could.

Michigan State head coach Mel Tucker, center, has the Spartans at 1-2 through the first three weeks of the Big Ten season.

Unfortunately for Simmons and the Spartans, it was an effort that mattered little as Iowa rolled over Michigan State, sending the Spartans home reeling after just three weeks of this shortened season.

Three weeks in and Michigan State, along with first-year coach Mel Tucker, is searching for something, anything, to build on.

The win over Michigan in Week 2? That elation was long gone by Saturday afternoon, and no doubt lost some luster as the Wolverines were busy getting beaten soundly by Indiana, proving they’re just not that good.

But that hardly mattered to the Spartans on Saturday. Sitting at 1-2 with a season-opening loss to Rutgers and the beatdown at Iowa sandwiching the victory over Michigan, Michigan State must once again find a way to rebound with unbeaten Indiana coming to Spartan Stadium next weekend.

“We’ve just got to come ready to work,” Simmons said. “There’s no other way to put it. There's nothing else we can do. I mean, it's not like Coach Tuck’s gonna have us do a new practice schedule or we're gonna have a new lifting program, or the training room is gonna be different. Nothing’s gonna change from last week to this week. The practices are going to be the same, the lifts are going to be the same, everything's going to be the same, but the mentality of this team is we’ve got to get better.

“We’ve just got to work. We’ve got to understand as a team that we’ve got to execute our game plan, because that's what allows us to win games. It’s having a good week of practice and going out on Saturday executing the game plan.”

There was very little of that execution against the Hawkeyes. In fact, there was very little two weeks before against Rutgers. Aside from four solid quarters in Ann Arbor, the Spartans are having trouble executing. At Kinnick Stadium — Michigan State made its first trip there since 2013 — the lack of a running game was again an issue as were turnovers and sloppy special teams play.

Add in the defense giving up big plays and there wasn’t much that went well for the Spartans.

From start to finish, Michigan State was the inferior team.

“There’s pain,” Tucker said afterward. “People respond to two things, they respond to pain and pressure. There’s a lot of pain right now in our locker room, our coaching locker room, our players’ locker room. We’re going to get better by applying pressure on ourselves as coaches and players, and create an environment that will allow us to improve.

“Environment and expectations are the two biggest indicators that give you a chance to get better. So that's what I'm looking forward to, getting back to East Lansing and getting back to work.”

There’s plenty to improve. Michigan State gained just 59 yards rushing, the second time in three games it failed to average 2 yards a carry, and the Spartans turned the ball over three times, leading to 14 Iowa points.

The defense, for the first time this season, got gashed for big plays, allowing 226 yards rushing. And the special teams were far from that, allowing a punt to be returned for a touchdown while five Iowa punt returns came back for an average of 21 yards.

Could there be more lineup changes? Perhaps.

Michigan State continues to work in young players. Sophomore cornerback Julian Barnett got his first start while the young skill players on offense are being relied on heavily.

Still, Tucker made it clear that every player’s reps are earned throughout the week and that evaluation is constant.

“It’s about performance,” Tucker said. “What have you done today? That will determine who's on the field. That’s just what it is. There’s no gray about it. It’s black and white. Who gives us the best chance?”

Perhaps those players are already on the field. If so, it’s simply about getting better.

That’s fair, considering what Tucker inherited. Few believed Michigan State would contend for the Big Ten title this season or even next. But, as Tucker has pointed out, the process starts now, and Simmons was focused on making that clear.

“We have responded before and we have a tough team,” Simmons said as his fist slowly began a drumbeat. “We have tough guys. This team wants to get better, we want to improve. … We’re gonna make it a priority to have this team ready to go Saturday, from here on out. We can't be up and down, up and down, up and down. That's not how you win games. That's not how you become a good team. That's not how you become a good program.

“And this program is on its way up. That's the goal. That's always been the goal is to improve every week and that's what we will do.”

It’s Tucker’s focus, too.

To this point, he’s been calm and measured. After Saturday’s performance, he spoke with an edge. There was frustration, to be sure.

What seems likely heading into a new week is there are no more excuses. The trying offseason is no longer an issue. It’s time to kick the process into another gear.

“As you build you're going to get punched in the mouth at times,” Tucker said. “The question is, how do you respond? How do you respond to a loss? When your back is against the wall, you’ve got to come out swinging, and that's the conversation.

“So, we're going to find out.”


Twitter: @mattcharboneau