For the second time this season, Michigan State is dealing with the uncertainty of preparing to play an opponent that had to cancel its previous game due to COVID-19 cases.
Michigan State found itself in that position two weeks ago after Maryland canceled its game against Ohio State, and the Spartans’ scheduled trip to Maryland ended up getting canceled, too. Now, the Spartans are getting ready to host Ohio State after the Buckeyes had to cancel their trip to Illinois this past weekend due to a COVID-19 outbreak of their own.
With Ohio State still planning to make the trip to East Lansing as of Tuesday, though, Michigan State isn’t changing the way it’s preparing this week. The Spartans are expecting to play Ohio State on Saturday, and unless that changes, that’s all they’re going to focus on.
“We are focused on preparing for Ohio State, because that’s what we can control, and we don’t have any information that would tell us not to do that,” Michigan State head coach Mel Tucker said Tuesday. “That’s where my focus is, and that’s where it’s gotta stay. That’s where our focus has gotta stay. That’s where it’s gotta stay no matter what.”
To Spartans quarterback Rocky Lombardi, it doesn’t make sense to expend energy on worrying about what could happen if they can’t play Ohio State, because all they can do is prepare for the opponent that’s on their schedule right now.
“It’s nothing that we can control, so we’re not even really gonna focus on it,” Lombardi said Tuesday. “There’s really no point in debating whether we’re gonna play or not. It’s not gonna help us. So we’re just gonna treat it like it’s a normal week, and obviously this is a good team, so we’ve just gotta prepare like we’re gonna play.
“At the end of the day, you prepare to play, and if you don’t play, you don’t play. There’s really nothing to prepare for for not playing. You prepare to play. If you play, you play, then you’re ready. And if you prepare to play for the week and then you don’t play on the weekend, then you just don’t play on the weekend. So at the end of the day, it’s just following the same process and doing the same weekly plan, and if it doesn’t work out over the weekend, it doesn’t work out. Nothing we can do.”
Michigan State safety Xavier Henderson said the Spartans, who are 2-3 on the season but coming off an upset win over previously unbeaten Northwestern, know they can’t afford not to be prepared to play their best if they want to have a chance to beat Ohio State on Saturday.
“With a team like Ohio State, you don’t ever want to be unprepared,” Henderson said. “So we’re gonna come in with the attitude of we’re gonna play. We’re looking forward to playing such a good team, and so we just gotta get better each and every day.”
Ohio State won’t have Ryan Day on the sidelines this weekend due to his positive COVID-19 test, and the Buckeyes will also be without any players who have recently tested positive, too. Nonetheless, Tucker doesn’t expect anything less than Ohio State’s best when acting head coach Larry Johnson brings the Buckeyes to East Lansing.
“I’m not expecting to see them operating at a disadvantage or anything less than what they’re capable of playing because of anything like that,” Tucker said. “I’m expecting them to be at their best and playing their best football that they’ve played this season. They’ve got good staff over there, great staff and they’ve got great players. So I would imagine they’re gonna probably be a better version of what we’ve seen on film.”
A bullet-point roundup of what else Tucker, Lombardi and Henderson had to say on Tuesday about preparing to play Ohio State:
- On the excitement to play Ohio State: “At this point, I think everyone’s got Ohio State somewhat circled on their schedule, because it’s considered maybe the best team in the country. So when you come to the Big Ten, you come to Michigan State, you come here because of the caliber of ball that you’re gonna be able to play, the competition, the teams, the Ohio States of the world that you’re gonna be competing against ... So I think it’s good that we’re able to have a team like this that we get a chance to play. It’s a great team, and we’re putting a lot of emphasis on it, certainly.”
- On his own experiences at Ohio State, where he was an assistant coach from 2001-04: “I’m from Ohio, I coached there for four years and won a national championship there with Jim Tressel. It was a great time, we won a lot of games, we had a really good run there, and I learned a lot as a coach. We recruited a lot of good players, and sent a lot of good players to the NFL while I was there. So I know about Ohio State, I know about the football there, I know how important it is.”
- On going through the uncertainty of playing a team coming off a cancellation for the second time: “We learned from our experiences, and we’ve kind of been down this road before, and you have to be able to adapt, we have to be able to stay focused. We have to block out the noise. The voices inside our building, from our coaching staff and our support staff, have to be stronger than any of the voices outside or any of the noise, about any types or hypotheticals or what-ifs or uncertainty. That’s not where our focus is. Our focus is, we’re preparing to play Ohio State, and we have a process for doing that, and we’re laser-focused in that way, and we’re tightening the screws in every way imaginable, in every aspect of our program.”
- On the additional motivation that comes from playing a top-5 team like Ohio State: “I’ve been in that position as a coach several times, and you do see that when you have players and coaches that are competitors, obviously when you’re playing a really good matchup, obviously there’s just a competition factor that kind of comes into play in terms of motivation and wanting to put your best foot forward. But you can’t really focus on that end result. It’s this journey, this process throughout the week where we have to be focused on that relentlessly. That is what will get us to a point where we can be ready to go out there and compete on Saturday.”
- On Larry Johnson becoming Ohio State's first Black head coach on an interim basis: “Everybody knows that Coach Johnson is one of the best in the business, and obviously that shows that they have a tremendous amount of respect and confidence in his ability to not only teach, develop and motivate players and recruit, but also lead. Lead a staff, lead a team, lead an organization. So I think that’s a good thing, I think it’s good to see, and obviously everyone knows his reputation in the business, he’s more than capable of doing all those things.”
- What stands out about Ohio State on film? “Every team you play, you look and every team’s got good players … when you look at a team like Ohio State, they actually have more good players. They have multiple good players on each side of the ball. Maybe not just two or three, they’re looking at five, six, seven guys. That’s the difference. So you don’t necessarily look out at a particular position group or a particular position and say, ‘Hey, they’re not very strong here. They have some players here that are probably not up to par that we can really, really take advantage of.’ You don’t really just look at that team and see a whole lot of. That’s because they’ve recruited well over the years, and they have a lot of players that are gonna be playing on Sunday.”
- On the challenge his secondary could face against Justin Fields and Ohio State's offense: “There’s gonna be a lot of pressure on those guys to do a great job in zone and man coverage, and also support in the run game and be high-percentage tacklers. They’re gonna be tested, so that’s an awesome challenge for them. We have to have a great week of preparation, and our rush and our coverage have to work together. That’s very important. We have to be able to have coordinated pass-rush, limit the scramble opportunities for the quarterback, try to contain him where we can. It’s almost impossible to do that, but you gotta put together a plan to try to do that. We’ve gotta be able to make plays on the ball, and we gotta get pressure on the quarterback, so that we give our guys a chance to cover them. So it’s a double-edged sword. We’ve gotta figure out a way to get it done, scheme-wise and with technique and fundamentals, but I’m sure guys will be up to the challenge.”
- On the excitement to play Ohio State: “We’re definitely excited. Everybody who came here came here to play the best team in the Big Ten. We didn’t come here to beat out the worst team in the Big Ten, we came here to beat the top dogs and compete with the best in the country, so this is a good opportunity. We’ve been looking forward to this now for awhile, so excited to go out there and play and show the country what we’re about.”
- On Ohio State's defense: “They’re a solid group every year. They’ve got loads of talent. They’ve got talent in the secondary. They’ve got talented at the linebacker levels, D-line. I think they’ve had the same linebacker corps for 12 years, it seems like. I don’t know if those guys are ever gonna leave, but they’re all good players and fun to play against, so they’re gonna give us all we can handle, and hopefully we do the same.”
- On Ohio State's secondary: “They’re very solid. They got first-round DBs all the time, arguably DBU. So they’re gonna have good players in the secondary, we’re not gonna overlook that. Obviously Shaun Wade’s got a lot of attention, and Sevyn’s done a good job this season, and both their safeties are solid players as well. So we just gotta go out there and execute our stuff. It’s really not about them, it’s about us. So we just gotta make sure that we’re on the same page and doing the best we can.”
- On Ohio State's passing offense: “We know Ohio State loves their vertical passing game. Their wide receivers are so explosive, and Justin Fields has such a good arm ... We’ve seen Ohio State’s wideouts making plays, catching the ball and running for 40 yards afterwards ... they’re also physical receivers who like to block. So we have to bring it physically, as well as with our speed.”
- On what it means to him, as a Reynoldsburg native and Pickerington Central product who didn't get an offer from the Buckeyes, to play against his home-state school: “It definitely means something, especially being from right outside Columbus. It’s insane how they love their football in Columbus, it’s ridiculous. It definitely means a little bit of something. We’re always going to play with a chip on our shoulder, and I think maybe that chip might grow even more this week.”