MSU's Mel Tucker Talks 'The School Down The Road,' Distractions, More
No. 6 Michigan football will take on No. 8 Michigan State Saturday afternoon in East Lansing for the first top-10 matchup between the in-state rivals since 1964.
"All of the excitement, electricity, tension and charisma that surrounds big-time college football has been building all week long here in the land of the Spartans, as well as the Athens of the midwest, Ann Arbor, Michigan," the late former Michigan radio play-by-play man Bob Ufer said on air before the Michigan-MSU game in 1979, with his words still ringing true more than 40 years later.
While meeting with the media, both Michigan head coach Jim Harbaugh and Spartan head man Mel Tucker stressed that their teams must stay the course and use their normal preparation strategy throughout the week, but each admitted that everything is heightened and that it's not just another game.
Tucker and his staff spent Monday morning educating their players on the rivalry, he revealed, but continued to reiterate that remaining focused in meetings and practice will be the key to being ready to play the Wolverines.
"We all know this is a big week and what this is all about, playing the school down the road for the Paul Bunyan Trophy," Tucker said. "Big game for our players, our university, our fans, our alumni, our Spartan dogs.
"Our focus right now is preparing relentlessly for the game, preparing for the pressure of the game. We all understand the significance of the game. That doesn't take away from what we need to do to prepare."
Another focal point is eliminating distractions, Tucker mentioned, keeping the focus on what will happen between the white lines at Spartan Stadium Saturday and making sure his team "peaks" at game time.
Tucker, who is 14-12 as a college head coach with half of his wins coming this season, has seen his name pop up on recent reports that say LSU is interested in him as a candidate to fill its head-coaching vacancy, and he was asked about the subject this week.
"My focus is on the upcoming game versus the school down the road, and that’s where my concentration and my focus is, and I really understand that you understand that," he said.
Tucker later added: "The most important voices will be the voices inside our building. We need to eliminate distractions and focus on what truly matters and is going to affect the outcome of the game."
In 45 of the last 51 games between Michigan and Michigan State, the team that has accumulated more rushing yards has come out the victor. Tucker and Co. are tasked with slowing down one of the country's most potent rushing attacks, while the Wolverines will go up against junior running back Kenneth Walker III, the nation's second-leading rusher.
The Wolverines' run game ranks fifth nationally with 253.3 yards per game, and they've racked up 290-plus yards on the ground in four of seven contests.
"Defensively, you have to stop the run," Tucker, whose team hasn't played a squad that currently holds a record of .500 or better, stated. "You’d like to try to make opponents one-dimensional if you can, and then affect the quarterback with rush and coverage. In the run game, we have to set the edge and build a wall; we have to do a really good job with our perimeter run support and not just in the run game, but some of the wide receiver screens and the bubble game outside.
"In the passing situations, we have to affect the quarterback with rush and coverage, and work together. On third down, we’ve got to get off the field."
Michigan redshirt freshman quarterback Cade McNamara has completed 63 percent of his passes for 1,115 yards and five touchdowns, with one interception and two sacks taken. He's managed the offense at a high level — leaning on the run game and making opportune plays through the air — with the Wolverines ranking 15th in the nation in scoring offense (37.7 points per tilt).
"I think he’s a good player," Tucker said. "I think he has command of the offense, and he does what they ask him to do and he does it at a high level. Very good player. Very good."
The Wolverines have been using freshman backup signal-caller J.J. McCarthy as a change-of-pace option in the backfield, mostly running read-option run plays. He's averaging 5.3 yards per rush on the season, though he has thrown for 212 yards and two scores.
Tucker said his defense will plan to be ready for all options, even ones the Maize and Blue haven't shown on film.
"We’ll have to see what their game plan is going to be, if we’re going to see that and what plays they’re going to run if they put another quarterback in the game," Tucker said. "We can’t assume that they’re just going to be runs, designed runs. We can’t assume anything.
"We have to read and react and play our responsibility, read our keys and do our jobs on those plays. We do need to know who’s in the game, and we’ll identify that and communicate that to our players before the game."
On the other side of the ball, the Spartan offense will face off with the toughest defense it has faced to this point.
Michigan State is averaging 34.3 points per game (29th nationally) and 451.7 yards per contest (26th), but the Spartans struggled against the two teams they've played this year that slot 56th or better in total defense — Nebraska (44th) and Indiana (56th). MSU totaled just 254 yards against Nebraska and 241 versus Indiana.
U-M ranks 11th nationally in total defense.
"They’re sound and solid," Tucker said of Michigan's defense under first-year coordinator Mike Macdonald. "They play with good technique and fundamentals up front. They’re stout in the trenches and they’re very coordinated with their coverages and they play really hard and they run to the ball. They’re opportunistic, in terms of forcing takeaways and things like that.
"It’s a strong group, they’re very well coached and they play extremely hard."
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