EAST LANSING – Mel Tucker isn’t willing to let you take his mind back to the deep water in Miami. Not for a second. No matter how big a moment it was for his then-second-year program. Or how much that win still lingers. Or how apt the comparison to this week’s challenge for Michigan State at Washington.
But if the Spartans walk out of Husky Stadium with a win Saturday, I expect Tucker might deliver another killer line similar to that famous postgame epilogue in Miami, which led to the naming of MSU’s student section at Spartan Stadium, “The Deep End”.
“We wanted to drag them into the deep water, where we are, where we live — with the strain and the struggle, the pain, the pressure, the weight room, the discipline, the attention to detail,” Tucker said.
Perhaps this time…
“We wanted to drag them through the Seattle mist and fog and jet lag from a 12-hour time difference, where we are, where we live…”
You get the picture.
The time difference is only three hours. The game is being played at 7:30 pm Eastern Time, a half-hour later than MSU’s kickoff two weeks ago against Western Michigan. The flight is only two movies long. But the way the Spartans are preparing, you’d think they were getting set for a pre-dawn attack halfway around the world.
This week is all about banking sleep, an extra hour a night. No more than a 30-minute nap on the plane. All at the behest of sleep science. Last year it was weeks of sweat tests in fall camp and replenishing nutrients as the Spartans prepared for Miami’s climate in mid-September.
This is all part of “the unnecessary work,” as Tucker describes it.
“The margins are so slim when you compete at a high level, if you want to get ahead in anything you’re doing, you’re going to have to do extra if you want to be great.”
Like in preparation for Miami?
“Here’s the way I see it: Like I told the players (Monday) morning, we’re building the story of this year’s team right now,” Tucker said. “Last year’s team is gone.”
The Miami comparison, to Tucker, is a “distraction.”
But it’s relevant. Its reverberations lasting — in recruiting, in expectations, in how the players think about themselves and how you view them and Tucker, and, for Tucker himself, in generational wealth.
“Last year in Miami, that was a big win,” MSU linebacker Cal Halladay said this week. “That really helped us with our confidence. Because we went there, they were ranked, too, and they were a good team. … So we proved to ourselves and built confidence in ourselves that we’re a good team, too, and that we can go and play in these crazy environments.”
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MSU’s players walked away from South Beach with a swagger that helped carry them through Halloween and, arguably, the Peach Bowl. They had a belief that they could finish games. They knew they had a superstar they could ride in Kenneth Walker.
That game changed our perception of MSU football under Tucker. The Spartans had done something hard, something real, taking over in the fourth quarter against an opponent of comparable talent, in sweltering conditions more suited for that opponent.
That win began to define MSU’s team and it propelled MSU’s season.
Saturday’s game at Washington has that same sort of potential. We’ll learn a lot about the Spartans — about quarterback Payton Thorne and this year’s star transfer, defensive end Jacoby Windmon. They’ll learn a lot about themselves. They need this sort of game right now — one they could actually lose. Seattle is forecast to be 30 degrees cooler than Miami was last year, a high of 62 and cloudy. But this could get uncomfortable for MSU. Washington has high hopes for its season, with a new offensive-minded coach, a talented transfer quarterback (former Indiana QB Michael Penix) and a 2-0 start to a season (against similar competition to what MSU has faced) that’s given the Huskies. no reason not to believe.
MSU didn’t just beat Miami last year. The Spartans left the Hurricanes battered and doubting themselves. Their season went south from there.
Washington is a 3.5-point favorite. History is on the Huskies’ side. MSU has lost its last seven regular-season games out west, including losses in Hawaii and Japan, dating back to its 1984 win at Colorado in George Perles’ second season as head coach, when Tucker was 12 years old. The Spartans lost seven straight before that, too, going all the way back to a 1957 win at Cal. So winning at Washington on Saturday would be every bit the sign that something is brewing this season — and under Tucker — that the Miami win was a year ago this same weekend.
“It does present an opportunity as a statement game for us,” MSU running backs coach Effrem Reed said Tuesday, “to go out there and put a product on the field on national television (and let it be known) that we could make some noise this year.”
Saturday’s game won’t determine the rest of the season. But, like last year at Miami, it’ll set the tone.
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Contact Graham Couch at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @Graham_Couch.