What they said: Mel Tucker says MSU needs to build a wall to stop the Michigan run game

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It has arrived, the battle for the state of Michigan. The undefeated Wolverines and Spartans will collide on Saturday for a year’s worth of bragging rights.

It has been a back-and-forth series since Jim Harbaugh has taken over the reins at Michigan. He is 3-3 against Michigan State, with wins in 2016, 2018 and 2019. The Wolverines are coming off a very bad loss last year in Ann Arbor when the Spartans, large underdogs, stunned the world when they won, 27-24. The Wolverines are going to be out for some revenge come Saturday, and the players that played in the game a year ago want to show the media and fans that the maize and blue are for real this time around.

MSU head coach Mel Tucker met with the media on Monday to talk Michigan week and he had plenty to say about the rivalry. In his opening segment, Tucker put a big emphasis on being prepared and also keeping the distractions out of the door — like the distraction of his potential LSU candicacy. He wants the only voices that matter to be the voices inside the program, and nothing else.

“We all know this is a big week and what it’s all about – playing the school down the road for the Paul Bunyan Trophy,” said Tucker. “This is a big game for our players, our university, our fans, our alumni, all of our former Spartan dogs. This is a rivalry game, we understand this is not just another game. We know there is a lot of excitement leading up – surrounding this game. Most important voices will be the voices inside of our building. We need to eliminate distractions and focus on what truly matters – is going to affect the outcome of the game. We got some really good work in during the bye – efficient and really productive.

“Our focus right now is preparing relentlessly for the game, preparing for pressure, not just game ready, but being prepared for pressure of the game – that’s where our focus is right now. We all understand the significance of the game, that doesn’t take away from the fact that we got to prepare what we do for the week leading up to the game – its going to greatly affect the outcome of the game. Our guys have been tremendous all season. It’s going to be an electric atmosphere, going to be a capacity crowd, the student section is going to be packed. It all goes back to preparation right now leading up to the game and focusing on what’s important in our process in preparing for the matchup.”

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The winner of this game will remain undefeated in Big Ten play, and it will have a great shot at being in the Big Ten championship game. Mel Tucker shared how much a win could mean for this program, and how he hears about this game on a daily basis.

“Obviously it’s bragging rights and it’s important to anyone associated to anyone with the game,” said Tucker. “People talk about it daily and there hasn’t been a day that has gone by that someone hasn’t mentioned this game to me – it may be someone I know or don’t know, it may be a text or an email. It’s a big game and we’re going to embrace it. I don’t try to play down any expectations or anything like that. I told the players this morning when we have rivalry games like this at the end of the day, your legacy and reputation is really formed by how you play and coach in the game. That’s the reality of the situation, which is a good thing, not everyone has the opportunity to play and coach in these games.”

Michigan State has 41 new players from last year — either freshmen or transfers — so none of them may truly know the significance of this rivalry game if they weren’t from the Michigan area. Tucker talked about how he gave the rivalry history lesson on Monday morning and how it won’t be an issue getting those new players to quickly understand it. “Yes, we took care of that history lesson and that introduction with the newcomers this morning,” Tucker said.

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“It is in your face, not just today, but every single day – since the day I’ve been here. There hasn’t been a day that has gone by that someone has mentioned something to me about this game.”

In rivalry games, there are high emotions from the team and players, but there is more to winning than just the Xs and Os — like being prepared and winning the turnover battle. In other words, Tucker says the team needs to execute.

“What prevails is execution,” said Tucker. “Our focus and our point of emphasis this morning is to eliminate the drama in our preparation. At the end of the day, it will come down to execution and playing with extreme effort. Obviously, the turnover margin is going to be a huge factor, in big games, and all games, but especially these high stake games. It’s all about playing clean football and complementary football – offense, defense, and special teams working together.”

Mel Tucker said he watched Michigan beat Northwestern on Saturday, and he knows how much Michigan runs the ball — as well as how good it is at running the ball. While he wouldn’t give away his defensive game plan, he did say what the defense needs to do against the Wolverines.

“You want us to layout our defensive game plan?” said Tucker. “Obviously, defensively you have to stop the run and make opponents one-dimensional if you can. Affect the quarterback with rush and coverage. We need to set the edge and build a wall, have to do a good job with our perimeter run support. Not just in the run game but with the wide receiver screens and the bubble screens on the outsides. Then in the passing situations, we have to affect the quarterback with rush and coverage working together.”

The Wolverines have a much different defensive scheme this year than they had last season when Tucker first saw Michigan. He talked about what he sees from the maize and blue from a defensive perspective.

“They are sound and solid,” said Tucker. “They play with good technique and fundamentals up front. They are stout in the trenches and they are coordinated with the coverages. They play very hard and run to the ball. They are opportunistic in forcing takeaways and stuff like that. It’s a strong group, very well-coached, and play really hard.”

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