MSU football cites progress, but still needs to win those key 10 minutes

Matt Charboneau
The Detroit News

If there was a theme over the last eight weeks and seven games that can sum up the season for Michigan State, it was a time that Mel Tucker calls, “10 minutes to win.”

For the Spartans’ first-year head coach, that consists of the final five minutes of the first half and the first five minutes of the second half.

On Saturday at Penn State, Michigan State dominated one segment and fell flat in the other, wrapping up the way the season has gone in a tidy little package.

Michigan State quarterback Payton Thorne throws a pass against Penn State during the second quarter.

“We talked about the 10 minutes to win — five minutes before the half and the five minutes after the half,” Tucker said. “A lot of games are won and lost in that 10-minute span, and we've been really focused on that. And that five minutes before to half I felt like we did some good things. The five minutes out of half, we didn't, and that was a big, huge factor in the game.”

It was Michigan State at its inconsistent best, something that has plagued the Spartans all season and has been something Tucker had preached from beginning to end.

Too many times over the last eight weeks, Michigan State has flashed, namely in victories over Michigan and Northwestern, only to fall apart in other games.

It was all there against Penn State. The Spartans were rolling in the first half as redshirt freshman quarterback Payton Thorne, in his first start, had found a rhythm and the running game was coming to life behind freshman Jordon Simmons. Michigan State scored touchdowns on three straight possessions, all on passes from Thorne — two to Jalen Nailor and one to Tre’Von Morgan.

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It was the second one to Nailor, a 7-yarder, that came in the final two minutes of the half, right smack in the key stretch, according to Tucker. That touchdown gave the Spartans a 21-10 lead at halftime.

It was that second five minutes where it was clear things would go awry. In that amount of time, Penn State put together an 11-play drive that ended with a touchdown and a two-point conversion to pull within three points. Five plays later, Michigan State was punting and the momentum had shifted.

The Spartans could muster only three points in the half as the Nittany Lions outscored MSU, 29-3, in the half on their way to a 39-24 victory.

Afterward, Tucker said frustration isn’t the right way to describe the team’s emotions. Instead, he chose to say it was disappointing.

“Going into the game I felt like we had a team that could win this game,” Tucker said “At halftime, I felt like we had a team that could win the game and felt good about our football team and about what we could do. And after the game, I felt the same way about this football team. I feel that we can do some good things and that we can win some games and that we have a bright future, and we’ll continue to hammer the process that we're going to get there. We’re going to continue to recruit like maniacs so we will be able to improve and help our team.

“But it's a very disappointed locker room, very disappointed coaching staff, but there is no lack of motivation right now for us, we just need to figure it out. Hopefully we’ll  find out pretty soon when we play next, so we can get ready.”

That news came Sunday afternoon and it has Michigan State (2-5) traveling to Maryland for a 7:30 p.m. kickoff on Saturday. By the time the Spartans get there, the Big Ten championship will have been decided.

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Tucker is determined to get this program back to that point, and why wouldn’t he be? The Spartans have played three times in the Big Ten title game, winning it twice.

But there has been a talent dip the last few years, something that has been obvious and has played a big role in the inconsistency this season. Still, there are positive signs with the existing roster.

Thorne threw for 325 yards and three touchdowns and looked in control of the offense. The young receivers seem on the verge of big things, including Nailor and Morgan along with Jayden Reed, Ricky White and Tre Mosley. Simmons could be a game-breaker in the backfield and on defense, a group of young defensive backs are just scratching the surface.

“I know this team a lot better than I knew them months ago when we started,” Tucker said. “These guys are coachable. They will listen and they will work. They take coaching, and that’s what we need. We’ll figure out a way to get it done.”

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But the Spartans need players, too. Tucker has said it all season and it was clear again at Penn State. The Spartans will get one more shot at Maryland, but expect plenty of changes in the off-season. Tucker’s first recruiting class will start signing this week and expect MSU to be active in the transfer portal.

However it happens, the roster needs to get better.

“We’ve got to recruit like crazy,” Tucker said, “because we need to be able to have more competitive practices. The more good players you have in practice, the more competitive the practices are, and the more the practices become like games. … We have to get more good players in the mix and then you have a better football team.

“So, that's really where we are right now. That's how you become more consistent.”

Twitter: @mattcharboneau