Tucker: Michigan State's stunning victory over Northwestern helps 'cement our culture'

Matt Charboneau
The Detroit News

We’ve been hearing it from Mel Tucker on a regular basis for the better part of the last three months.

Ever since the Big Ten made the call to play this season and Michigan State has been hitting the practice field, the first-year coach has been repeating the same message to his players, to the media, to the fans — to anyone who cares to listen.

Michigan State's Jayden Reed (5) is lifted by Nick Samac, rear, as they celebrate Reed's touchdown reception against Northwestern during the second quarter Saturday.

Getting the Spartans back to the top of the Big Ten is a process, one he said he and his staff are hammering every day, trying to “cement our culture” in a program that had suddenly become nothing more than a middle-of-the-pack also-ran under Mark Dantonio’s last couple of seasons.

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And when the season began with only one victory in four games, albeit a huge win over rival Michigan, the same mantra could easily have been tuned out. The Spartans were playing well on defense, but the offense showed no signs of life.

Of course, then came Saturday when Michigan State ran for almost 200 yards, played another smothering game on defense and pulled off the 29-20 upset of No. 8 Northwestern.

“Obviously we needed this win as a team,” Tucker said after the Spartans had lost their previous two games by a combined score of 73-7. “It was just good to get out there and beat a really good team like Northwestern because it’s just kind of the confidence boost we needed. We know we’re a good team and we know we can beat good teams, but it’s kind of hard to believe in yourself until you do it.”

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Perhaps — just perhaps — it was a sign of what Tucker has been talking about all this time.

Michigan State ran the ball, something it hasn’t done all season. It stopped the run, too, limiting Northwestern to just 63 yards on the ground. It limited its mistakes — there was only one turnover — and it got after the Wildcats, sacking quarterback Peyton Ramsey four times while creating four turnovers of their own.

If the special teams can iron out some issues punting and in the return game, the Spartans will be close to putting together a full 60 minutes of quality football.

“We're getting closer to the brand of football that we need to play here,” Tucker said “This is the standard that we’ve set. We were able to control the line of scrimmage today — run the ball and stop the run. And we were able to really show the mental toughness that it takes to win and beat good teams.

“Again, I'm proud of this football team, proud of this entire organization.”

Nothing that happened on Saturday guarantees anything moving forward. As Tucker pointed out this week, he’s been down this road plenty of times in his career, being part of a program in its first season under a new coaching staff. Along the way, Tucker promised, there will be painful moments when it seems like nothing is going right.

Those moments are sure to happen again for the Spartans. They’re scheduled to play Ohio State on Saturday, the No. 3 team in the nation that seems destined for the College Football Playoff. If the game happens — the Buckeyes had to cancel this weekend’s matchup with Illinois because of COVID-19 issues — it will be a tough test for the Spartans. There will certainly be trying times, highlighted by the fact the opponent is among the best teams in the country.

But as Tucker also keeps pointing out, it’s all part of the process he references so often. There is learning in winning, like there was against Northwestern and Michigan before that, but there are lessons in the losses, too, sometimes more so than in a victory.

As good as the Spartans felt on Saturday night, he knows there is tough sledding ahead.

“Culture doesn't change overnight. It just doesn't,” Tucker said. “But wins like today show what type of football we're capable of playing when we're focused, when we're process-driven, when we play complementary football, and when we take care of the football.

“It was an awesome team effort and we still have a lot of work to do, a lot of work ahead of us. It’s a 24-hour rule with us here, because we need to keep this momentum going, this upward trajectory of our football team, our program. We need to continue to move forward, continue to work to get better, to hammer our process, cement our culture, and to continue to develop that mentality of mental and physical toughness that it takes to perform consistently week-in and week-out in this league.”

That consistency might still be a year or more off. After all, the roster is sure to undergo its share of changes as some decide to move on and others come on board.

But one thing is clear, Tucker seems to have this thing pointed in the right direction. The only question is if they can avoid any detours along the way.

“They should be really excited,” quarterback Rocky Lombardi said when asked what fans should think of where Tucker has the program. “Coach Tucker's amazing. He's got an amazing staff, support staff, all of it. He’s done a really good job and we're really looking forward to working with him for the next couple years. He’s done a great job recruiting.

“He’s the real deal. He’s gonna bring us back to where we were, and I'm really excited to be a part of it.”


Twitter: @mattcharboneau