Win and you’re in. Lose more luck next season.
Sometimes life can be so simple. That’s how easy it will be for Michigan State on their season finale road trip to State College next week to take on No. 11 Penn State.
The Spartans were less than 30 minutes from becoming Bowlable for the second time in the Mel Tucker era on Saturday. Offensively, things boiled up early against a visit to Indiana. Michigan State ended the season with a season-high 540 yards offense. Quarterback Payton Thorne found his rhythm with Keon Coleman, hitting 8 times with his top receiver for 107 yards and a touchdown. The running game, known more for faltering than rushing this season, racked up a season-best 242 yards and 5 yards per carry.
But despite the gaudy numbers, things went downhill in the second half. Defense allowed Indiana to have 24 unanswered points and hold the game at 31. Fans were treated to an extra period of football thanks to a missed 22-yard field goal from Ben Patton with 2 seconds remaining in regulation time.
Delete that, make 2 periods out of it.
The Spartans could have cleared any doubts about their bowl status with a chipshot at home. Now, after a 39-31 double overtime loss, they must play perfect football against a Nittany Lions squad bent on making a splash.
This has been the story for Sparty all season. A tight game for a week. Full implosion closest. A big win that gives hope to the fanbase over the following weekend. It’s been a copy-and-paste phenomenon since October.
Seriously, look back on the season. The Spartans played closely but fell short in a 27-13 loss to Maryland. A week later, Ohio State torched Tucker’s defense for 614 yards en route to a 49-20 win. After that, Michigan State picked up a much-needed 34-28 win over Wisconsin.
A narrow win at Rutgers followed by an implosion against the Hoosiers? That means victory is next, right?
Here’s what’s at stake for Michigan State against Penn State next Saturday.
A sub-500 season
This was to be expected after the 29-7 defeat against Michigan. The Spartans had games against then-No. 15 Illinois, which means every other game should be a win.
All that changed after the 23-15 upset at Champaign. This was followed by a 27-21 away win against Rutgers. Talks shifted from off-season vacation plans to potential bowl targets.
Should Michigan State fall in Happy Valley, it would be just its first lost season since 2016. It would also be its second since 2010 and its seventh since 2000.
While Mark Dantonio potentially dropped the ball all blue moons, Tucker would finish below .500 for the second time since being hired (including 2-5 in the pandemic-shortened 2020 season). And while the COVID season should be taken with caution, this is one coach set to make over $9 million next season.
Two lost seasons? Two more reasons for long-term concerns.
More time for Tucker
Teams are assigned 15 drills to prepare for a bowl game. With the college football playoffs no longer in play, players looking to transfer or go pro could likely choose to sit out bowl play.
For Tucker, that’s not entirely negative. It gives him an early glimpse of next year’s squad and those who qualify for another round. In these 15 drills he will be able to spot the mistakes on both sides of the ball.
But to get those extra workouts, he’ll need an upset at Penn State.
Another top 15 win
Michigan State’s best win of the season came against then-No. 15 Illinois. To paint the scene, the win came after several MSU players were suspended indefinitely following the tunnel brawl that took place after Paul Bunyan’s battle.
Even with Tucker’s horrendous clock management in the closing minutes, a win is a win. A top 15 win goes a long way in morale and maybe even further when trying to cool off a hot seat. One may seem like a stroke of luck. Two? Something’s brewing.
Penn State heads into Saturday with a chance for its first season of double-digit wins since 2019. Sean Clifford has a chance to tie the program’s all-time winning record, while freshman phenom Nicholas Singleton could potentially surpass 1,000 rushing yards in the first year of his promising career.
A win for the Nittany Lions also keeps them in contention for a possible 6th place finish for the New Year. Not to mention that it’s the last home game of the year. Everyone wants to leave something for the fans, right? Imagine letting a weaker opponent spoil the moment.
A chance at redemption
The lasting image that stays with Michigan State fans this season is Indiana’s Dexter Williams completing two passes but the Hoosiers somehow win in double overtime. Williams, who finished more yards than a passer as a runner (86-31), helped the Hoosiers to a 17-point comeback in the 2nd half and forced the game into overtime.
That’s not Michigan State’s standard. It can’t be the standard going into next season.
The Spartans don’t need to vent the excitement. On paper, the Nittany Lions are the superior team. On the field, James Franklin’s program can attest to that.
The Spartans must show combat. You need grit. When rides are bogged down by Penn State’s offense, Michigan State needs to capitalize. If the offense is buzzing, it must be at least 3 points.
Saturday’s loss to a 4-7 Indiana squad isn’t Tucker’s worst mistake with the program, but it might be his most embarrassing. Blowing a 17-point lead to a sub-500 team with a chance to qualify for the Bowl only adds more fuel to the hot-seat flames.
Not everyone gets a chance at salvation. Michigan State will have 2 at Beaver Stadium next week. The 1st is set to win 1 more game in 2022. The 2nd? Proof, even if it comes to a loss, that Sparty is in capable hands under Tucker next season.