Michigan State football

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Michigan State football: Mel Tucker’s “keep choppin’” attitude put to test

Mel Tucker’s “keep choppin'” attitude with Michigan State football is being put to the ultimate test this week.

Keep choppin’. It’s the phrase Mel Tucker has coined as the slogan for his Michigan State football program. It is meant to encourage members of the program to keep pushing forward. No matter what else is going on or what might happen, stay focused. Keep working. Keep playing. Keep choppin’.

Whatever you think of the slogan, this type of attitude is common in college football. Coaches and staff members want to instill a type of culture within the walls of their program that translates to gameday. It might be corny. It might be cliché. It might be annoying to watch coaches make the chopping signal on the sidelines. But up until this point, it has worked.

For as many inconsistencies as there are with the Michigan State football program under Tucker, there has been one thing that can be counted on.

The Spartans have rallied around each other and their head coach to come back from devastating defeats. When the 2020 team turned the ball over seven times against Rutgers in Tucker’s first game as head coach, they followed it up by beating Michigan in Ann Arbor as 24-point underdogs. Later that season, after losing two games in a row by a combined score of 73-7, the Spartans rallied to beat a top-10 Northwestern team in an empty and cold Spartan Stadium. Keep choppin’.

After that 2-5 season came to an end, Tucker and his program put in an offseason of work to start 2021 8-0. During that stretch, Michigan State rose from the dead to come from behind and beat Nebraska with one first down in the second half. Trailing by 16 late in the third quarter against eventual Big Ten champion Michigan, the Spartans battled back and found a way to beat the Wolverines. After their undefeated season was lost at Purdue, they responded with a dominant performance against Maryland. Once their Big Ten title hopes were dashed after getting thoroughly embarrassed by Ohio State, they scratched and clawed their way to victory over Penn State in the snow. Keep choppin’.

This season, after losing four games in a row and being humbled by the Buckeyes again, Michigan State reached real deep to beat Wisconsin in double overtime. Most recently, a week after being soundly beaten against Michigan, down eight players due to a postgame altercation, the Spartans outplayed and won on the road against Big Ten West-leading Illinois. Keep choppin’.

Saturday’s loss to Indiana presents a new challenge to the “keep choppin’” slogan. For the first time under Tucker, the Spartans have only themselves to blame. They can’t point to a gap in talent. They can’t blame a slow start. There was no road crowd to overcome. Michigan State simply blew it. They handed that game to Indiana. It happens. It’s part of sports. But the first time is always impossible to swallow. Tucker suffered his first loss by single digits on Saturday. The Spartans were 9-0 in one-score games prior to the collapse against the Hoosiers. When they have lost, they have been beaten badly. Easy to accept as a competitor. Sometimes, the other team is just better.

What is far more difficult to accept is the feeling of being better and having a loss to show for it.

For the first time, Michigan State coaches and players will watch the Indiana film with painful regret. In their other losses, there isn’t the feeling of knowing you were one or two plays away. There are mistakes to correct and improvements to be made, certainly. But it will be impossible to watch the game back and not think “what if” on a number of plays.

At 5-6, the Spartans still have a chance to salvage their season. They’ll have to rise from the ashes once again and win a road game as heavy underdogs. A low-level bowl game may not mean all that much in the long haul.

Maybe the coaching staff would be better off getting a start on recruiting. Maybe the players are ready to be done with the season. But in a season that has gone awry, anything positive should be cherished and appreciated.

At the time, nobody knew how important the 2012 victory against Minnesota would become. It allowed the Spartans to get to a bowl game and jump-start their run to the Rose Bowl. Maybe this could be Tucker’s version of that springboard. Maybe not. Either way, the phrase faces a different set of circumstances for the first time. The coaching staff and players will have to wrestle with the nagging annoyance that is known as regret.

Saturday in State College will tell us exactly how much that saying is ingrained into this program. Keep choppin’.

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