Michigan State football may have just notched a program-defining victory for Mel Tucker

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Free Press sports writer Rainer Sabin answers three questions after Michigan State football defeated Miami, 38-17, in Miami Gardens, Florida:

Was this a program-defining for Michigan State?

According to Mel Tucker, program-defining moments are usually not seen in real time.

Instead, they are realized in retrospect, when a larger sample size is gathered and a team can establish a track record of success.

"That's more so maybe a perception from the outside when you look back because I am not sure if I coached anywhere where we weren't expected or the expectation wasn't to win every game," Tucker said last Tuesday.

But if MSU continues its rise from the ashes left in the wake of the awkward transition between Mark Dantonio and Tucker, people will likely look back at this win as the turning point.

An road victory against a ranked opponent favored by a touchdown is exactly the kind of result that can set a new trajectory for a resurgent program. It will certainly reverberate across the college football landscape. After lurking on the periphery of the Top 25, the Spartans now have a good opportunity to be ranked for the first time since September 2019 — Dantonio's last year.

Tucker believes that all games are the same. That may be true from the inside. But if perception is often the reality, the Spartans look like a team on the ascent.

Michigan State linebacker Quavaris Crouch (6) celebrates after recovering a fumble during the first quarter against Miami, Saturday, Sept. 18, 2021, in Miami Gardens, Fla.
Michigan State linebacker Quavaris Crouch (6) celebrates after recovering a fumble during the first quarter against Miami, Saturday, Sept. 18, 2021, in Miami Gardens, Fla.

Were the Spartans able to neutralize D’Eriq King?

Earlier in the week, Tucker conceded there was nobody on the Spartans’ roster who could replicate Miami quarterback D’Eriq King, an unusually gifted quarterback with tremendous pocket presence and exceptional athleticism.

“We’ll do the best we can. He’s a special player,” Tucker said. “We don’t have anyone on our scout team who can do what he can do.”

Yet the Spartans held their own against the preseason Heisman Trophy hopeful.

While the Miami quarterback was efficient during extended stretches — completing 17 of his first 19 attempts — the Spartans mitigated explosive passing plays. The longest of King's 38 completions covered 28 yards.

And he did little damage on the ground, averaging 0.6 yards per rush attempt.

King's stat line was further an attack-minded Spartans' defense that forced the Miami quarterback to commit a series of critical mistakes. .

An interception by Angelo Grose late in the first half killed off a pivotal possession that began after Michigan State seized a 10-7 lead on Kenneth Walker's 7-yard reception.

Drew Beesley's forced fumble created a huge momentum swing in the fourth quarter, setting up a touchdown that again widened the Spartans' lead to 10 points.

Then, towards the end of regulation, Ronald Williams sealed the victory when he stepped in front of King's throw to the sideline.

Michigan State Spartans quarterback Payton Thorne runs with the ball during the first half against the Miami Hurricanes at Hard Rock Stadium, Saturday, Sept. 18, 2021, in Miami Gardens, Fla.
Michigan State Spartans quarterback Payton Thorne runs with the ball during the first half against the Miami Hurricanes at Hard Rock Stadium, Saturday, Sept. 18, 2021, in Miami Gardens, Fla.

Did this game shine a light on MSU's progress under Tucker?

As Michigan State limped to the finish line last season, Tucker was disgusted by what he saw. Penalties. Turnovers. Mistakes galore. The Spartans were just pummeled by Ohio State in a 40-point loss in December, when Tucker aired his displeasure about his team’s propensity for shooting itself in the foot.

“It's called discipline,” Tucker said then. “You have to confront and demand that. If you don't have the discipline to do your job then eventually you are going to hurt the football team. It is not acceptable, and it is either correctable or not. If it is not correctable then it means we need to make a change. We are going to find out if it is correctable or not.”

Flash forward to Saturday and the Spartans were the more shipshape team. They won turnover battle 4-0, forcing a fumble and snagging three interceptions. They weren't derailed by their mistakes to the degree that Miami was even though they committed one more penalty.

The Hurricanes’ errors had a cumulative effect, killing drives on their end and creating more scoring opportunities for the Spartans.

It’s the details that matter, and Tucker has preached that since his arrival. As time has progressed in his fledgling regime, Michigan State has increasingly become a more finely tuned machine. They certainly looked more well-coached than the Hurricanes, who resembled the version of the Spartans destroyed by the Buckeyes nine months ago.

Contact Rainer Sabin at rsabin@freepress.com. Follow him on Twitter @RainerSabin. Read more on the Michigan Wolverines, Michigan State Spartans and sign up for our Big Ten newsletter.

This article originally appeared on Detroit Free Press: Why Michigan State football's win at Miami is program-defining

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