After finishing dead last in the FBS in pass defense a season ago, Michigan State head coach Mel Tucker made changes to his coaching staff to combat the Spartans’ inability to defend against the pass.
Tucker brought in new defensive line coach Marco Coleman and pass rush specialist Brandon T. Jordan to improve Michigan State’s pass rush. He let go of cornerbacks coach Travares Tillman, named safeties coach Harlon Barnett the new secondary coach, and Tucker personally took on the challenge of coaching the Spartan cornerbacks.
But in a 39-28 loss to Washington, in which Michigan State surrendered 397 yards and four touchdowns through the air, the changes that Tucker made this offseason fell woefully short in solving the Spartans’ pass defense problems.
“The resume is on the tape. So, right now, I’m a horseshit football coach,” Tucker said at his Monday press conference. “That’s honestly how I think about it. So, we’ve got to get better.”
When asked if he felt personally responsible for the poor play of Michigan State’s cornerbacks and secondary against Washington, Tucker was very blunt.
“Hell yeah, I take it personal. I take it all personal,” he said.
Tucker then reflected on his time as an assistant at Ohio State, when then-head coach Jim Tressel told him, “I’ve never met a good coach who didn’t take it personally” when the team or position group wasn’t playing at the level expected.
Defensive coordinator Scottie Hazelton has taken some heat on social media for his 4-2-5 base defense and his inability to scheme around Michigan State’s deficiencies in the secondary, but Tucker said that what happened on Saturday against the Huskies was not due to scheme.
“We didn’t have anything schematic, which is the first thing you look for,” Tucker said. “It was mostly communication or technique – some type of eye discipline or an alignment error.”
Tucker said that Michigan State got caught in a “rat-trap” against Washington. That’s how the head coach refers to a situation in which a player understands what they are supposed to do in a given situation all throughout practice, but suddenly doesn’t do what they’ve been taught to do in the actual game.
“Two plus two is four,” Tucker said. “You get in a game and you feel good about two plus two being four, and then…all of a sudden two plus two equals five or six. And it’s like, ‘Why did you say it was five? What is it? It’s four. Do you know it’s four? Yes, I know it’s four. Why did you say it was five? I don’t know.’ That’s called a rat-trap.
“We have to do a better job as coaches to make sure that doesn’t happen. That starts with me. We have to coach harder, we have to coach smarter, we have to coach with more intensity, more detail, more sense of urgency and we have to put more pressure on the entire situation so that when we go into a game we don’t rat-trap.”
Tucker said that personnel changes are coming after he viewed the Washington game film. While he didn’t go into specific changes, it can be assumed that guys like nickelback Chester Kimbrough – who was routinely picked on by the Huskies – and a few others will be competing for their starting jobs this week in practice.
“Coming out of the game, after you grade the film and you see rat-trap, then you’ve got guys basically in three categories: Guys you can trust and you know what you’re going to get from them, then you got guys in the middle category that you feel like you should be able to trust but they need to get better, and then you’ve got guys in the category where you just can’t trust them right now. You’re not sure what you’re going to get at all when they step on the field,” Tucker said.
“So, you have to make sure those guys that you can’t trust don’t step on the field again, until they get to the point where you can trust them again through practice. That’s the first thing that you have to do. Who are we going to put on the field? And then, what changes need to be made from a personnel standpoint, assuming that the scheme is sound? And then we’ve got to coach them better.”
Michigan State won’t have long to get things corrected, as the Spartans are scheduled to host Minnesota this coming Saturday. Through three weeks, the Golden Gophers are averaging the second-most total yards per game (554.7) in major college football.
While Minnesota’s offense is primarily a power-run unit, the Gophers do have an experienced and capable quarterback in sixth-year senior Tanner Morgan. Through three games, Morgan has thrown for 618 yards and four touchdowns while completing nearly 72 percent of his throws (38-of-53).
“They’re very efficient in the passing game,” Tucker said of the Gophers. “They have a very good quarterback – experienced. One of the best quarterbacks in the country.”
Michigan State and Minnesota will kick off at 3:30 EST at Spartan Stadium on Saturday.