Here's how Michigan State football can pull the upset to stun Michigan

Chris Solari, Detroit Free Press
·3 min read

Every game Michigan State football played against Michigan under Mark Dantonio proved to be competitive, even during the Spartans’ worst season.

Until last year.

The Wolverines drumbeat MSU, 44-10, the worst loss to Michigan in Dantonio’s 13-year tenure, and the only time Michigan beat him in two straight games.

Exit Dantonio, enter Mel Tucker.

The Spartans’ new coach has his work cut out for him when he and his team travel to Michigan Stadium. Odds are heavily tilted toward the 13th-ranked Wolverines, a 24½-point favorite going into Saturday.

So how can Tucker do what only his mentor Nick Saban has done in MSU history – beat Michigan in his first game? Here are three ways the Spartans can pull off the upset:

[ Mel Tucker has support: Nick Saban, Kirk Cousins, Robaire Smith ]

Use offensive playmakers

Michigan State quarterback Rocky Lombardi (12) and receiver Tre Mosley (17) congratulate receiver Jayden Reed after his touchdown during MSU's 38-27 loss on Saturday, Oct. 24, 2020, at Spartan Stadium.
Michigan State quarterback Rocky Lombardi (12) and receiver Tre Mosley (17) congratulate receiver Jayden Reed after his touchdown during MSU's 38-27 loss on Saturday, Oct. 24, 2020, at Spartan Stadium.

Quarterback Rocky Lombardi showed the ability to move the Spartans down the field with his arm, throwing for 319 yards in a 38-27 season-opening loss against a Rutgers secondary that was probably the strongest facet of its defense. The junior needs to remain accurate and get the ball on the run to receivers Jayden Reed and Jalen Nailor, who combined for 212 yards and three TDs on 17 catches. It is a step up in competition, and all eyes will be on those two, so offensive coordinator Jay Johnson must spread out Michigan's defenders, then work to use his slot guys and tight ends over the middle to soften the defense for Reed and Nailor down the field.

[ Rocky Lombardi explains why Michigan game means more to Spartans ]

Win in trenches

Michigan State defensive end Jacub Panasiuk tries to get past Michigan right tackle Jalen Mayfield at Michigan Stadium in Ann Arbor on Nov. 16, 2019.
Michigan State defensive end Jacub Panasiuk tries to get past Michigan right tackle Jalen Mayfield at Michigan Stadium in Ann Arbor on Nov. 16, 2019.

The Spartans’ offensive line struggles the past two years are well-documented, and Saturday’s loss showed there remains a steep learning curve to generate a run game. That needs to change against the Wolverines, who appear to have a decided advantage on the edge with Kwity Paye and Aidan Hutchinson and run-stuffers inside with Carlo Kemp and Donovan Jeter. The Spartans must summon their most cohesive blocking performance since 2017 to get traction in the ground game.

On the other side, MSU needs defensive end Jacub Panasiuk to produce like he did last year to match what Drew Beesley showed opposite him last week. The interior remains strong with a foursome of tackles in Naquan Jones, Jacob Slade, Dashaun Mallory and Jalen Hunt, who showed physicality. But it’s up to linebackers Antjuan Simmons and Noah Harvey to cause havoc and prevent Michigan ball-carriers – particularly its three-headed attack of quarterback Joe Milton and running backs Hassan Haskins and Zach Charbonnet – from getting into the second level of the Spartans’ new 4-2-5 defense.

PICK IT UP: Why Mel Tucker has confidence in Spartans' lifeless run offense

CHAOS: Michigan has emphasized creating 'havoc plays' and it showed

Few mistakes

The seven turnovers MSU had against Rutgers won’t cut it against Michigan. Eliminating those is foremost among Tucker’s tasks this week. To do so requires Lombardi and Reed, who combined for three of MSU’s five fumbles lost, to hold on to the ball and not try to overextend plays. It means Nailor cannot muff a punt, and he and Reed need to produce positive gains, and make sound decisions in the return game.

Defensively, the Spartans must run to the ball and hit someone first and not get caught thinking about where they should be. And from the coaches, there needs to be an understanding that every opportunity to score is a premium, while still maintaining an aggressive play-calling approach.

Contact Chris Solari: csolari@freepress.com. Follow him on Twitter @chrissolari. Read more on the Michigan State Spartans and sign up for our Spartans newsletter.

This article originally appeared on Detroit Free Press: How Michigan State football and Mel Tucker can stun Michigan