It all starts up front in the Big Ten East. Ever since the Dantonio-Meyer era took shape, there’s been more of a premium on the point of attack. Michigan State Football’s slide from 2016 through the start of this season could be traced to the decline of MSU’s Offensive Line. The Spartans surprise 7-0 start can also be traced to that critical playing group. In fact, the single biggest difference in the surprise start has been the compounding growth of the Offensive Line.
It hasn’t just taken a step or two forward, it’s taken a major leap. No one around the vast Spartan Nation could have reasonably expected that big a leap for the 2021 season. The progress Chris Kapilovic’s players have made suggests only better days are ahead in the most competitive spot on the field in the Big Ten East. If an Offensive Line cannot compete with the big boys in the division, there is no chance that team will ever play for a Big Ten championship.
With so much to celebrate about Kenneth Walker’s start, Payton Thorne’s record pace, and huge plays coming from multiple Spartan Wide Outs, nothing stands out like play of the Offensive Line. Their progress seems most essential to the Spartans great start.
Mel Tucker and Scottie Hazleton wanted tangible progress in year two, but had to take a unique path to get there through seven games. On paper before fall camp, the 2021 Defense had only a few strong points, a lot of question marks, but actually had something special brewing behind the scenes. Tucker and staff had a good idea of what this Defense could be and how they could optimize it. Sometimes strategy matters more than it gets credit for in the world of Big Ten football.
Everyone around the league not only realizes the Spartans play a “bend but don’t break” Defense, but that it’s worked really well through seven games. Michigan State ranks 16th in Scoring Defense right now, which is about as good as “bend but don’t break” can get. At the same time, look at all of the new names, faces, and numbers that are starting to make plays for this Defense. There’s a mix of late-era Dantonio recruits, transfer portal talent, and even some young Tucker recruits that are carving their path in this new-era Spartan Defense.
This unit has improved incrementally, often in ways that do not show up on a stat sheet. There’s no other way to hold so many opponents to less than three-scores in a game, and sport an average of allowing only 18.71 points per game. Doubters will say the best days for this Spartan Defense are now behind them. Optimists will point to how many roles have been defined, how many new players have become more comfortable playing with each other, and how effective this Defense has been in eliminating the big play. There’s been far more bend than break in the Spartan Defense so far and after a bye week to rest, reset, and refine, this unit is looking for their best ball in the final five weeks. This is also a more confident group now than they could have been at the end of fall camp. Let’s see how that element shapes their play in the final five games.
No piece of the 7-0 puzzle has seen highs and lows like Spartan Special Teams. Fortunately, they’ve been a lot more up than down, and did produce the single most important play of the season so far. The first seven games of the 2021 would look a lot different if Jayden Reed had not run that Punt back for a Touchdown against Nebraska. Reed took advantage of a killer Huskers malfunction and flipped that game on its side to setup the chance for MSU to win a thriller in Overtime.
Beyond Reed’s two scoring returns, this unit has featured the steady leg of Bryce Baringer and clutch kicking of super Senior Matt Coghlin. You know you’ve got a special year brewing when you’re making game changing plays in the kicking game rather than them up. The nuts and bolts of Spartan Special Teams must to tighten up coming out of the bye to avoid committing a big gaffe in the final five games. Make no mistake, there would be no 7-0 start without the big plays and big kicks from unit.
Mel Tucker preached the importance of strength and conditioning from the day he got back to Michigan State. After working back into the college game through some of the top programs in the sport, he realized how College Football had changed. He saw the path to quickly rebooting Spartan Football started with the MSU weight room and nutrition center. He was absolutely right.
Few around the sport saw a quick fix for Spartan Football. Uncertainty of the transfer portal aside, Michigan State Football was supposed to be bogged down with weak recruiting classes, undersized lineman, and limited explosive play potential. Tucker saw it another way. He saw untapped potential, plenty of upside, and he identified the technology and human resources needed to restore Spartan Football’s physical edge that had softened up during the final years of the Dantonio era.
Tucker deserves credit for his vision, but the entire program and support staff deserves credit for executing to deliver the kind of impact no one around the Big Ten saw possible. Michigan State is already among the best conditioned teams in the Big Ten conference and we’re not even through Tucker’s first full season at MSU. As his predecessor famously once said, “it’s just getting started.”
The modern era of the Mitten State rivalry began in 1995 when Nick Saban and Lloyd Carr took over as Head Coaches. Since then, Michigan holds a two-game edge over Michigan St., and this rivalry has become the best sibling rivalry around. Regardless of what you hear from either side this week, or from TV talking heads that don’t do their own research, that’s how close this rivalry has been for a couple of decades now and that’s how close it should be for many to come.
Every year provides a potential new “turning point.” For Mel Tucker, he can be the first Coach at MSU to start 2-0 against Michigan in ages. He can cut the modern era edge to one, and he can find an even higher gear for his upstart Spartans that have zoomed their way back into national spotlight. But regardless of whether Michigan State wins or loses next Saturday they are going to play four more games. They are going to have a shot at a seventh 10-win season in the last twelve years, and whether coming off a big win or a bitter defeat Saturday afternoon, they will have to move forward.
This team’s 7-0 success came from finding and staying in the moment. You can’t seize the moment if you’re not living in it. You can’t work the process if you’re stuck in the past or daydreaming about the future. That’s what Mel Tucker has been communicating to his program while telling them to “keep chopping.” That mentality has gained traction, and has set this team up to chop on for at least the final five weeks.