Mel Tucker probably has a teddy bear personality inside but he looks like a man who growls at the walls when he gets out of bed every morning. The muscular head football coach of the Michigan State Spartans is an imposing dude who has a stern expression and expects ultimate effort from his players and coaches—or else.
Not surprisingly Tucker refers to Spartan Stadium as “The Woodshed.” It’s a nickname that suggests MSU fans should make the facility deafening in support of the Spartans. while creating an intimidating environment for visiting teams. The imposing name was first used at State over 20 years ago when Nick Saban coached there and Tucker was a grad assistant.
Since the 2021 season the Spartans are 8-0 in “The Woodshed,” including raucous victories against Michigan and Penn State a year ago. This season the Spartans hold home wins over Western Michigan and Akron. After the September 11 game against the Zips Tucker, who likes to use social media, took to Instagram thanking fans for their performance at the stadium.
On Saturday the Golden Gophers will be in the “The Woodshed” and it’s a visit Minnesota coach P.J. Fleck has prepared his team for. The Gophers have been readying themselves for difficult environments and situations since January. Fleck’s 3-0 group is going on the road for the first time this season.
“We know it’s going to be a hostile environment,” he said Monday. “…They’ve got a great fanbase. They’ve got a wonderful stadium. We know it will be loud. We’ll be prepared for that.”
Michigan State is a physical team as demanded by its coach. The Spartans will be a bigger challenge for the Gophers with their toughness and talent than they faced in dominating wins over New Mexico State, Western Illinois and Colorado. But Fleck, now coaching his sixth team at Minnesota, knows the Gophers have their own prowess. He said 2022 spring practice and training camp were the most physical of his years in Minneapolis.
“If you’re preparing for this—Michigan State now—it’s going to be a long day,” Fleck said. “You better be preparing for those types of teams back in spring ball, in training camp, and we did more good-on-good in training camp and spring ball than we ever did in our six years (previously); knowing what kind of slate we were going to have this year, especially once we get into Big Ten play.”
College football sources see the game this Saturday as a toss-up. The Spartans were No. 11 ranked nationally by the Association Press prior to last Saturday when they lost 39-28 to Washington in Seattle. A chronic issue surfaced again as the Spartans gave up 397 passing yards to the Huskies (507 total yards). Although MSU had an 11-2 season in 2021, the Spartans had a leaky pass defense giving up 324.8 yards per game—the worst in the country. As of today, State has the 101st ranked pass defense in the among 131 FBS teams, yielding 264.3 yards each game.
The Gophers are second nationally in total offense, averaging 554.7 yards per game. It’s been run-first for Minnesota, with the Gophers ranking No. 2 in rushing (312.7 yards per game). Minnesota’s All-American Mo Ibrahim is tied for second in the country with Nebraska’s Anthony Grant for most rushing yards (464).
How effectively the Gophers can throw the ball, though, may determine the outcome of a game that is the Big Ten opener for both programs. The Minnesota pass game ranks No. 77 nationally but has improved with the return of offensive coordinator Kirk Ciarrocca.
Even though the season-ending injury to leading wide receiver Chris Autman-Bell last Saturday is a setback, the Gophers have other experienced targets. Fleck expressed confidence in his receivers. “Everybody can (potentially) be the focal point,” he said.
The offensive line, of course, will have to give quarterback Tanner Morgan time to throw and be consistent with run blocking as well. Minnesota lost 181 game starts from last year’s offensive linemen who moved on, but line coach Brian Callahan and preseason All-American center John Michael Schmitz have helped the Gophers regroup.
“I love how they have jelled together,” Fleck said about the line while acknowledging more improvement is needed. “I love how connected they are.”
As expected, the Spartans are a resilient team. They trailed the Huskies 29-8 after two quarters but played a strong second half. Quarterback Payton Thorne, who Fleck calls the “heartbeat” of the Spartans, is a high level competitor and he threw for 323 yards and three touchdown passes against the Huskies.
The Spartans rank No. 60 in the country in total offense. Their rankings in running and passing are No. 66 and No. 44 respectively.
The Gophers are No. 2 nationally in total defense, giving up 170.3 yards per game. “We have a really smart defense,” Fleck said. “They understand the calls. They understand why the calls are that way. It helps having (linebacker) Mariano Sori-Marin in the middle who is basically a defensive coordinator on the field. He can make a lot of things right really quick. …”
On Saturday the Gophers hope to keep things right on the road, visiting “The Woodshed.” They haven’t played at Michigan State since 2013 and not won there since 2006 but the Gophers have been an impressive road team under Fleck. They are 14-4 in their last 18 away games including bowls. Only Ohio State, 17-3, has a better travel record among Big Ten teams.
Fleck talking about Autman-Bell’s role now that he is sidelined for the season: “His leadership is second to none and we’re going to need that from him as we keep going through Big Ten play here.”
Fleck is impressed with the work ethic of his team. An hour after practice ended Sunday, 40 players were still on the field working on their own even though they were not required to do so.
The Athletic 131 ranks every FBS football team weekly and has the Gophers No. 39, with 3-0 Maryland No. 29. Not on board with that.
Vikings running back Alexander Mattison talks every Tuesday on KYCR AM 1440 on the “10,000 Takes” show with Eric Nelson and Wally Langfellow. The veteran sports journalists host their show from 5:05 to 6 p.m. Monday-Friday.
The Timberwolves, who have their first training camp practice September 27, host Fan Fest presented by Mayo Clinic October 1 at Target Center. Doors open at 2 p.m. and the team will take the court at 3 p.m. for a practice and scrimmage. Fan Fest tickets are complimentary with a $1 processing fee. https://www.Timberwolves.com/fan-fest