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After second straight drubbing, 'everything is an evaluation' for Spartans

Matt Charboneau
The Detroit News

Four games into the season, four games into Mel Tucker’s tenure as Michigan State’s coach, there is one clear positive coming out of the program — the Spartans haven’t quit.

Even in the midst of losing two straight games by a total score of 73-7, the fight remains. Players are going hard for a full 60 minutes.

“That's what we do here,” said senior linebacker Antjuan Simmons, who had a career-high 14 tackles in the 24-0 loss to Indiana on Saturday. “We’re going to work and we're going to get better now. I mean, that's all we can do is work.”

Of course, that’s not why the games are played. Ultimately, it’s about winning and competing for championships. It’s something Michigan State became accustomed to for the better part of Mark Dantonio’s 13 seasons leading the Spartans, but seems far off at this point.

Why is Michigan State (1-3) in this position, halfway through a COVID-shortened season? There’s plenty of reasons, to be sure. The fact Tucker took over so late — he was hired in early February — just before spring practice was wiped out by a coronavirus that played havoc with the offseason and preseason camps is a big one.

Michigan State coach Mel Tucker

There have been some questionable in-game decisions, too, but when asked after Saturday’s loss what was the biggest issue, Tucker didn’t dance around the question.

“Much of it is about execution,” Tucker said.

In other words, it’s on the players. At least, it’s on the players that have played. To that point, it sure sounds like Tucker and his staff are going to continue tinkering with the depth chart — or rep chart, in their world — to try and find the right combination.

“We need to figure out what we can do with the guys that we have,” Tucker said. “One thing we are able to do because we are able to play is we are able to evaluate who we have and what they can do, and who wants to or has the ability to play the type of football we need to play here to be successful.

“We're going to continue to move forward with our process, which we believe in, which is stick with the facts, see what happened, look at the film, identify the mistakes and make the corrections — structural, mental or physical. Then we evaluate the roster and see who needs to be in what positions and then turn the page and prepare for the next game. So that's what we're going to do.”

It was a recurring theme in Tucker’s postgame media session on Saturday. More than once he used the phrase “the guys that we have.”

So far, the guys they have haven’t been getting the job done, and it’s hardly been limited to one part of the game. The Spartans have been unable to run the ball and have gotten inconsistent play at quarterback, running back and along the offensive line.

Quarterback Rocky Lombardi was pulled in favor of Payton Thorne on Saturday while the carousel continues at running back. The offensive line rotation has basically stopped as Michigan State managed just 60 yards on the ground against Indiana.

Would it change if the line was overhauled or there was a change in the backfield, like giving Elijah Collins more of a chance after rushing for nearly 1,000 yards last year? Who knows? But at least it sounds like Tucker is open to whatever might work.

“We have to figure out what we can do with the guys that we have and when the holes are there, we need to hit them,” he said, talking specifically about the running game. “At the end of the day, it's a very simple game. You can only scheme your way so much in a run game. From a running game standpoint, you have to be able to get a hat on a hat, move people and hit the hole with velocity and fall forward on contact. That's what has to happen. We've given guys opportunities to run the ball and we'll make a decision going into this next game on who is going to get the lion's share of the carries and who is not.”

That evaluation is continuing all over the field with only wide receiver the only possible exception as nearly every healthy player at that position is getting at least some work while the top three are clear. At defensive end, linebacker and in the bulk of the secondary, the process continues.

It could lead to some changes by the time Michigan State heads to Maryland next Saturday — a game that, for now, is scheduled to kick off at noon as the Terrapins hope to get back on the field after a COVID outbreak forced them to cancel their matchup with Ohio State.

Slowly, younger players have been getting on the field. Thorne, a redshirt freshman, could take over at quarterback and freshman Jordon Simmons started at running back for the first time. Redshirt freshman Michael Fletcher saw his most extensive work at defensive end while freshman cornerback Angelo Grose started for the first time.

“Everything is an evaluation,” Tucker said. “Every game rep, every practice rep, how guys pay attention in meetings, what type of notes they take. We collect their notes and look at their notes. What they do in the weight room. What they do in from a nutrition standpoint, punctuality, everything is an evaluation for us. It's ongoing, and it's never going to stop.

“Based upon who we have in our evaluation, then we'll put the guys out there that we feel like give us the best chance. Then we need to work for better execution. We need to work harder, we need to be tougher — mentally and physically. And we need to keep hammering our culture of accountability, attention to detail, a sense of urgency and grinding and not making excuses and finding a way to get it done.”

Twitter: @mattcharboneau