Mel Tucker has had an eventful three years with Michigan State football. What are his 10 best wins as a Spartan?
Entering his fourth season as Michigan State football head coach, Mel Tucker is under some scrutiny. He made headlines at the conclusion of the 2021 season by inking a $95 million contract. But after a disappointing outing in the 2022 season, many are fairly pegging this as a make-or-break season in his MSU tenure.
Even still, Tucker has notched some impressive wins during his time here.
Here’s my list of Tucker’s 10 best wins:
10. 2021 at Northwestern (38-21)
This is the game best known for introducing the larger college football world to Kenneth Walker III. The entire offseason was spent discussing who would be taking snaps under center. But not enough people talked about the impact transfer at running back. K9 immediately dispelled that with a 75-yard blur on MSU’s first snap of the season. He eventually finished with 264 yards and four touchdowns in his green and white debut.
9. 2021 vs. Nebraska (23-20)
This was certainly an ugly outing, as MSU trailed practically the whole second half. Nebraska’s stout defense held MSU in check for most of the game outside of an MSU flea flicker to Jayden Reed. However, due to some late-game heroics and an ill-aimed punt, Reed extended MSU’s magical undefeated record with a 62-yard punt return for a touchdown. MSU picked off Nebraska on their first possession in overtime. After a 23-yard run by Kenneth Walker to put MSU in prime scoring position, Matt Coghlin booted in a chip shot field goal to seal the game.
8. 2022 vs. Wisconsin (34-28 2OT)
Although an underwhelming season, this game still provided plenty of entertainment value. MSU was coming off four straight losses and needed a signature win – badly. Jayden Reed and Keon Coleman shined, with the pair accounting for three touchdowns. The first from Coleman was on a stop route, and the second on a trick play pass from Reed in the first overtime. Finally, Reed added another signature goal line fade from Thorne to his collection, winning the game in double overtime. Coleman lived up to his own offseason hype, frequently beating his defenders in man coverage.
The key to this game was MSU’s defense, which netted three sacks, nine tackles for loss, one interception, and a fumble recovery. In his first game at linebacker, Jacoby Windmon led the way with 11 tackles, and two tackles for loss, and was responsible for both the interception and forcing the fumble.
7. 2021 vs. Penn State (30-27)
Affectionately called the “snow game”, this was as aesthetically pleasing as they come. Nothing beats watching a team have an absolute blast on the field in several inches of fluffy snow. Although the play was sloppy due to the conditions, every MSU fan would call this one of the most memorable games of the season due to the visuals.
MSU capped off its rebound 2021 season in style, with 138 yards and a touchdown from Walker. This ended up being his last game at MSU, as he would forgo the bowl game to prevent any injuries prior to the NFL draft. The game’s signature play was a classic Payton Thorne-to-Reed connection late in the fourth quarter, with the latter “Mossing” his defender to put the game out of reach.
6. 2021 at No. 24 Miami (38-17)
If you wanted a game that gave a temperature check for the “Is MSU real or not?” question, point to this game. In blistering heat, MSU showed it could hang with a not-too-shabby Power Five team on the road. Miami certainly did itself no favors with costly turnovers from D’Eriq King. But MSU took advantage of every opportunity. They also did a commendable job of handling Miami’s aggressive front seven, which was bringing pressure to Thorne the entire game.
Walker made Miami’s defensive backfield look silly on several occasions, piling on 172 yards.
Additionally, this game was a signature for Jalen Nailor, who grabbed two touchdown catches including a back-breaker to put the Spartans up 14 points late. Tucker showed that he wasn’t afraid to run up the score, something that MSU fans had sorely missed in the late Mark Dantonio years.
5. 2022 at No. 16 Illinois (23-15)
I would argue this is Mel Tucker’s best-coached game in his time at Michigan State. With a 3-5 record on the road against a top 20-ranked Illinois, the cards were highly stacked against the Spartans. But MSU put together a masterclass, scoring 23 straight points on the much-improved Illini defense, and holding them to just 15 points. Even though things looked dicey in the first quarter, MSU quickly took control of the game in the third quarter. They iced the game late with some key defensive stops and clutch punting from Bryce Baringer, who had four land inside the Illinois 20-yard line.
4. 2020 vs. No. 8 Northwestern (29-20)
Similar to Illinois in 2022, MSU went into the game with a bit of a lost identity against a highly ranked Big Ten West team. Ranked in the top 10, Northwestern would eventually make an appearance in the Big Ten Championship against Ohio State later that season. MSU shot out of a cannon a 75-yard bomb from Rocky Lombardi to Reed on MSU’s second offensive snap. They would subsequently take a 17-0 lead early in the second quarter. Northwestern would respond with 20 straight points of their own.
However, MSU made some key plays late, including two huge field goals from Matt Coghlin. With this win, Mel Tucker notched his second top-15 win of the COVID-19 season (more on his first top-15 win later…).
3. 2021 vs. No. 13 Pittsburgh (31-21)
MSU matched up in the Peach Bowl against their former defensive coordinator Pat Narduzzi. Unfortunately, this game lost a bit of luster before kickoff, as both teams had key players opting out. Pitt quarterback Kenny Pickett and Walker both sat on the sideline to avoid injury.
MSU started the game fast in the first quarter, jumping to a 10-7 lead off an early touchdown from Reed. However, Pitt took control in the second and third quarters, scoring two straight touchdowns. One of those came off an MSU fumble in its own red zone. The fourth quarter was all MSU. Connor Heyward made an impressive leaping grab showcasing his excellent hands. And Reed snagged yet another one-on-one catch on a goal-line fade.
MSU iced the game with a Cal Haladay pick-six to ring in a New Year’s Six bowl win for Tucker.
2. 2020 vs. No. 13 Michigan (27-24)
This is a game that literally nobody picked MSU to win. During Mel Tucker’s first game, MSU coughed up the ball seven (!!!) different times, losing to Rutgers in embarrassing fashion. Consequently, they came into this game as 21.5-point underdogs. Although the Big House stands were empty, this was still a true road game for MSU against a top-15-ranked Michigan team.
The coaching staff did their homework and realized the way to counter blitzes and one-on-one coverage was to chuck the ball early and often. As a result, Lombardi and Ricky White put the Michigan defensive backs in a torture chamber. Lombardi racked up 323 yards and three touchdowns, with White as the main beneficiary (196 yards and a touchdown).
Additionally, Antjuan Simmons and Noah Harvey also put out strong showings at linebacker. They combined for 22 tackles, two tackles for loss, and two passes defended.
1. 2021 vs. No. 6 Michigan (37-33)
There was no contest. The 2021 matchup between MSU and Michigan for the Paul Bunyan Trophy was the most hyped game in the rivalry’s history. Both teams were undefeated, ranked in the top ten. College GameDay, Big Noon Kickoff, and Barstool all were in East Lansing to cover the game.
After trailing as much as 30-14, MSU made a late surge in the second half to win 37-33.
Thorne showed incredible poise with a few bonkers throws to Reed during the comeback. Walker secured the Doak Walker Award with this performance, an absurd 197 yards and five touchdowns. Some would argue he also should have received a Heisman invite based on this performance. Spartan Stadium arguably had two of its loudest moments ever with K9’s go-ahead touchdown, as well as the interception by Chuck Brantley to put the game away.
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