Northwestern's Pat Fitzgerald: Mel Tucker has Michigan State headed in right direction

Matt Charboneau
The Detroit News

After beating Michigan State five times in 12 meetings, Pat Fitzgerald knows a thing or two about facing the Spartans.

Specifically, the Northwestern coach knows a lot about facing Mark Dantonio, who was at the helm in 11 of Fitzgerald’s 12 matchups with Michigan State. And now that Dantonio is gone and Mel Tucker has taken over, Fitzgerald admits there are schematic changes but the same intensity remains.

Northwestern head coach Pat Fitzgerald says he's been impressed with Michigan State's defense, which includes  defensive end Jacub Panasiuk (96).

“That Spartan defense has been one of the best defenses in this league and in the country since I've been the head coach here,” Fitzgerald said on Monday. “And this group looks ferocious. I mean, they're flying around. They've created a bunch of turnovers and they've got some young guys making big-time contributions. And then there are older guys that have been there, it seems like forever, a bunch of Chicago guys that are tough and physical and just play the way that they've always played and that's Spartan defense.”

That defense will have its work cut out for it this week as No. 11 Northwestern visits Spartan Stadium for a noon kickoff on Saturday, fresh off an impressive victory over Wisconsin that has the Wildcats (5-0) in control in the Big Ten West and seemingly headed for a spot in the conference championship game.

The Spartans (1-3) have been decent defensively this season, even though the turnovers haven’t been coming in the manner Fitzgerald suggested. They limited Indiana two weeks ago to 24 points even though the Hoosiers’ average starting field position was almost midfield.

Young players are contributing, like Kalon Gervin, Chris Jackson, Angelo Grose and Michael Dowell in the secondary as well as Michael Fletcher and Jalen Hunt along the defensive line. And as for the Chicago guys that have been around, end Jacub Panasiuk and defensive tackle Naquan Jones certainly qualify.

Offensively, however, is where most of the struggles lie. The Spartans have scored only seven points in the last two games and have turned the ball over 14 times in just four games.

Still, Fitzgerald isn’t taking anything for granted, even as his team is rolling and the Spartans are struggling.

“It’s going to be a huge challenge for us,” Fitzgerald said. “With the holiday week we’ve got to be focused. We're going to have a great week of prep again, like we did last week, and move forward and we’re going to try and find a way to go win a game.”

While Northwestern enters the game as the Big Ten’s surprise team — the Wildcats were 3-9 last year with just one conference victory — Fitzgerald believes there is evidence Tucker and his staff are on the right track. In fact, he thinks it won’t be long before Michigan State is once again among the conference’s contenders.

“Coach Tucker is going to put his philosophy in the way that he wants his team to play,” Fitzgerald said. “But in the first year, you look at all the coaching books and you’re norming and storming. You're creating new norms, you're creating new expectations and you're kind of going through a little bit of a storm while all those changes are happening. And then once you get through that then there comes the formation of the foundation of what you're doing .

“You’re starting to see that happen right now and when I watched some of the things that Coach Tucker had to say, you know, he just wants to get out and take more reps, he just wants to play so they can continue to coach and get his DNA all over the team. Again, they're incredibly talented. I mean, they're not very far removed from being at the top of the Big Ten. It’s a very, very talented roster.”

Twitter: @mattcharboneau