Mel Tucker didn’t want a shootout. He got a shellacking instead, and a sharp reminder of the balance of power in the Big Ten. There is no balance at all.
The Spartans came south with the No. 7 team in the country, the Heisman-hopeful running back and the coach being crowned. They came south with confidence. And then things went south quickly, as quickly as the Buckeyes into the south end zone of Ohio Stadium. It was 21-0 after the first. And then the Buckeyes went north, 49-0 after the second. It was a big game that was never a game, 56-7 final, more proof that Ohio State is playing a different game than its rivals.
In reality, its rivals play down south. Its rivals, until further notice, are Alabama, Georgia and Clemson. Tucker has put the rest of the Big Ten on notice, and he’s earned the praise and the payday coming his way. Reports say he’s about to become the second highest-paid coach in the country, which was the cost for Michigan State to keep him. His $9.5 million salary will blow Ryan Day's out of the water, the way Day blew Tucker out of the water in Columbus.
"We got blasted today," said Tucker. "That’s what it was."
For Tucker, this is the cost of doing business in the Big Ten, specifically the Big Ten East. The Buckeyes don’t budge. Ask Jim Harbaugh, who once came south with the nation’s No. 4 team and No. 1 defense and went home with two black eyes. In two games against Day and Ohio State, Tucker’s Spartans have been outscored by nearly 90 points. Good news is, they’re not Tucker’s Spartans yet.
Tucker patched together a top-10 team this season with recruits he inherited and transfers he found. He’s put his imprint on the program with his bold demeanor, restoring the spunk the Spartans had lost. But the core of the roster bears few of his fingerprints. He also came south with the worst pass defense in the country. Wouldn’t you know it, Buckeyes QB C.J. Stroud threw for 393 yards and six touchdowns by halftime, at one point completing a school-record 17 passes in a row. It took Ohio State two quarters to put up 500 total yards.
In a quiet locker room after the game, Tucker told his players "I don’t want to hear a word on the bus or on the plane. We got a 38-minute flight. There’s nothing to talk about. Let’s get showered up, get dressed and get the heck out of here. Get back to East Lansing and get back to work -- and guys that can’t do that will be confronted."
In theory, Kenneth Walker was Michigan State’s answer to Stroud and the Buckeyes’ receivers. He rushed for 25 yards. The Spartans should have pounded him more to start, not that it would've mattered in the end. Walker is a sensational talent, but he’s only one. Ohio State has more talent than it knows what to do with. They send one batch of receivers to the NFL, and another arrives. They have elite athletes at every position who tilt the field on every snap. Like Alabama, Georgia and Clemson.
A former defensive back, Tucker said this week he wanted to avoid a high-scoring game in Columbus. “I’m not in the shootout business," he said. "When I hear something like that, it makes me want to vomit.” His stomach had to be churning when Ohio State went 86 yards on its opening drive, then 88 yards on its second, then 71 on its third, all while facing just one third down. They turned seven drives into seven touchdowns in the first half, averaging more than 10 yards per play. The Spartans had no answer on offense.
Answers are hard to come by against the Buckeyes, harder, it seems, each year. They're gunning for their fifth straight Big Ten title, 78-4 against conference opponents since 2012, unbeaten since 2019. Asked what it will take to beat Ohio State, Michigan State QB Payton Thorne paused for a few seconds, as if chewing on the words he knew not to say: better players. He settled on better execution. Tucker wasn't so shy.
"Recruiting is where we’re going to close the gap," he said. "We need more depth and more guys that can win one on one. I think that’s obvious. I don’t think that’s news, if anyone’s really paying attention. It’s execution obviously, and then we're going to recruit like crazy. We're going to be relentless in doing that -- and we’re built to do that. We’re built to recruit at a high level.
"Big picture, that's what we need to do."
In the Big Ten, the big picture is clear: Ohio State's in a league of its own. Saturday brought that into sharp focus for Tucker. He's not shielding his eyes or looking away, because the Buckeyes are always staring back. He's confronting the truth in hopes of changing it, in hopes that what happened on this day, said Tucker, "never happens again."