One change could fix Michigan State football quicker than you might think. What change must Mel Tucker make?
Michigan State’s 39-31 loss to Indiana in overtime this past Saturday was the worst of Mel Tucker’s tenure so far for obvious reasons. Indiana came into that game having lost seven in a row and nothing was going their way. On top of that, it was a home game for Michigan State football and the win would’ve locked it into a bowl game.
Instead, the Spartans blew a 17-point halftime lead. And with a top 10 Penn State team looming, it’s looking like we won’t be going bowling. You just can’t blow a 17-point lead to a team like Indiana at home.
But now that the dust has settled and emotions are no longer running high, we need to look at the reality for this MSU football team.
Obviously, changes must be made. Too much went wrong this season to just run it back with the same staff intact next season. But I also think it’s important not to overreact and just blow the whole staff up. We need to remember this is really only year two for Tucker and Co. because of COVID-19 ruining the 2020 season.
So what changes need to be made?
Believe it or not, I think Hazelton’s job is the safest of the main coordinators. Last Saturday was far from the best defensive performance for MSU, seeing as Indiana ran for 257 yards. However, half of those yards came from the first drive of the game and one 80-yard run combined.
The defense only allowed 31 passing yards. Yes, Indiana’s pass game is terrible, but during Hazelton’s time here, plenty of terrible passing teams have thrown all over MSU. So the 31 yards they allowed Saturday is encouraging.
Last week, I wrote about why Hazelton deserves to stay. And while I did research, I noticed something a bit concerning after Saturday’s game. While the defense has drastically improved over the last few weeks, especially the pass defense, the run defense has not been great.
In Hazelton’s one year at Kansas State, his team allowed 166 rushing yards a game, the second worst in the Big 12. Michigan State currently has its worst rush defense since 2004, allowing 180 yards a game.
I think the concern with Hazelton is no longer the pass defense he puts on the field. But with a history of poor run defenses, he needs to prove himself there. I still believe he deserves another year as MSU has recently been plagued with injuries and suspensions. But it’s something to watch closely next season.
Jay Johnson became a popular name among fans pretty quickly after his hire. During the end of the Dantonio era, we saw some of the worst offenses in Michigan State football history. Johnson brought new life to the offense, and we saw drastic changes fast.
Now, it’s important to note we had Kenneth Walker III last season. A player who will go down as one of the greatest to ever play at MSU. So, naturally, he made the offense look better than it probably actually was.
Outside of Walker, the offense remained pretty much intact, and we have seen a drop in production this season. Last year, MSU averaged nearly 32 points per game, while this season it has dipped to just over 25. A whole touchdown difference is never good unless it’s an improvement. But I don’t think Johnson is all to blame.
While it has been frustrating to watch this MSU offense at times this year, I think Johnson’s job is safe and I think it should be. Remember the staff is still trying to get their guys in there to make this team succeed. A quarterback battle next spring could help bring more life back to this offense.
Changes must be made, however, and the guy who absolutely needs to go is Ross Els, the special teams coordinator. Of the three main coordinators, he has been the only one whose group has steadily gotten worse with time. And this past Saturday was the tipping point.
Against Indiana, the offense and defense both played well enough to win the game. However, the special teams allowed Indiana to start the game at the 50-yard line, which led to a touchdown. They allowed a kickoff return for a touchdown. And missed two field goals, both of which would have won the game for MSU even after all the other mishaps.
Kicking has been an issue for MSU all year, and I think has been the biggest contributor to the Spartans’ points per game total falling off seven points from last season. The inability to make even chip shot field goals I believe cost Michigan State more than three points per game, on average.
Now not having a good kicker certainly hurts. But it’s Els’ job to find a good kicker and to also develop the kickers we have. Els is more to blame than anyone else when it comes to that. And on top of the poor kicking, MSU’s punt and kick return coverage has not been good in years. And that all falls on Els.
I think special teams is a unit that often gets overlooked in the grand scheme of things because everyone just thinks offense and defense. But I believe if Tucker fires Els and brings in a good special teams coordinator, we’ll see a much better team on the field next season.
So while some of you may want to see a bunch of changes during this offseason, I don’t think they’re coming. But as long as Tucker brings in a new special teams coordinator, I think we’ll be just fine. Just hang in there, Spartan fans, MSU will return to glory sooner than you may think.