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Michigan State head coach Mel Tucker knows how big the rivalry with Michigan is. He knows his legacy in East Lansing will be determined based on the Spartans’ performance on Saturday.
He was aware of that when he signed on to be the head coach of the Spartans on Feb. 12, 2020.
“In this type of rivalry, I believe [I get it], because it’s in your face and it’s not just today. It’s every single day,” Tucker said on Monday. “Since the day I’ve been here, there hasn’t been a day that’s gone by that someone hasn’t mentioned to me something about this game.”
No. 8 Michigan State (7-0) will host No. 6 Michigan (7-0) on Saturday at 12:00 p.m. on FOX in one of the biggest regular season games in the history of the program. It’s the first time these two will go head-to-head as top ten teams in 57 years. This one has College Football Playoff implications, with the winner in the fast lane to win the Big Ten East and earn a berth to the Big Ten Championship Game in December.
The rivalry has been lopsided historically, with the Wolverines up 71-35-5. But Sparty has fought back in recent years, winning 9-of-13 meetings since 2008. This is why Tucker came to Michigan State. Why he bolted from Colorado after just one season. For this game. An opportunity to show America that the Spartans are for real.
“We’re gonna prepare, and we’re gonna build up to the game. And then we will peak at the right time of the week — at noon and be ready to play,” Tucker said. “I know how big the game is, and if I know, then my players are gonna know.
“And they do know.”
To win, Tucker’s defense will need to stop the No. 5 ranked rushing team in the nation, spearheaded by sophomore running back Blake Corum and senior running back Hassan Haskins. Tucker knows Michigan will try to run the ball, but says his defense needs to make junior quarterback Cade McNamara beat them.
“Obviously you have to try to stop the run, you would like to try to make opponents one-dimensional if you can, and then make effect the quarterback in rush and coverage,” Tucker said. “So, in the run game, we have to set the edge and build a wall. Have to do a really good job with our perimeter run support — and not just in our run game, but wide receiver screens, the bubble game outside.”
Based on the numbers, you might think that Jim Harbaugh’s squad has the advantage on the ground. But not so fast, says Sparty, who punches back with one of their own. That would be junior running back Kenneth Walker III. The Wake Forest transfer hasn’t been stopped this season, rushing for 997 yards and nine touchdowns. That’s good for No. 2 in the country, making him one of the frontrunners for the Heisman.
This will be entertaining, but Tucker is prepared for it. And so is his team. Well ahead of the rebuild, Michigan State isn’t looking back now, only looking forward.
“It’s a big game, and we embrace it. I don’t try to play down any expectations or anything like that,” Tucker said. “I told the players this morning, I told them this before. When you have rivalry games like this — at the end of the day, ultimately your legacy and your reputation, a lot of it is formed by how you play and how you coach in these games.
“This is the reality of the situation, which is a good thing because not everyone has the opportunity to coach and play in these games. We’re built for it, and we’re gonna prepare for it.”