Mel Tucker: Michigan State football must move past LB Cal Haladay's targeting suspension

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EAST LANSING — It was a flag Mel Tucker didn’t agree with, but he also knew he had no recourse to change the targeting penalty against Cal Haladay.

So Michigan State football’s coach sought clarity from the Big Ten office. What should Tucker and his staff do differently to avoid another such call?

“I just wanted to make sure that I was clear and make sure it wasn't anything that I needed to do as a coach to help improve our situation or whatever,” Tucker said Tuesday. “And really, that's one of the feedbacks I got — there was nothing more that we need to do. So we just move forward.”

Haladay was ejected from Saturday's 48-31 home win after a hit on Western Kentucky receiver Jerreth Sterns. The starting linebacker will miss the first half Saturday when No. 11 MSU travels to Rutgers (noon/BTN).

Michigan State head coach Mel Tucker lets the student section know he appreciates them supporting the team after the Spartans beat Western Kentucky on Saturday, Oct. 2, 2021, at Spartan Stadium in East Lansing.
Michigan State head coach Mel Tucker lets the student section know he appreciates them supporting the team after the Spartans beat Western Kentucky on Saturday, Oct. 2, 2021, at Spartan Stadium in East Lansing.

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Tucker said he sent the play to the Big Ten office Sunday and spoke with Bill Carollo, the Big Ten’s director of officiating, on Monday specifically about the targeting call that was reviewed and upheld with 9:40 to play in the fourth quarter.

“It was a judgment call from the official,” Tucker said. “I don't agree with the call. But it is what it is, and there's nothing that we can do about that at this point. So what's next is making sure the young guys are ready to go.”

The Hilltoppers wide receiver ran a sit-down route, then reached for the wide and low pass from quarterback Bailey Zappe. Sterns hit the turf as Haladay, who slowed down before contact, dove at the same time to try and break up a potential catch, though the ball slipped through the receiver’s hands. As he did, the MSU redshirt freshman’s right elbow made contact with Sterns’ helmet. A flag flew quickly as he laid on the ground.

Dean Blandino, a rules analyst for Fox who previously served as vice president of officiating for the NFL, did not think the play warranted a penalty despite Sterns being a defenseless receiver. Big Ten Network broadcast analyst Jeremy Leman, a former Illinois linebacker, felt it should have been overturned. However, when the play was reviewed — per standard procedure — and replay officials confirmed the ruling on the field, drawing jeers from the Spartan Stadium crowd.

Michigan State's Cal Haladay, right, and Xavier Henderson tackle Nebraska's Austin Allen during the third quarter on Saturday, Sept. 25, 2021, at Spartan Stadium in East Lansing.
Michigan State's Cal Haladay, right, and Xavier Henderson tackle Nebraska's Austin Allen during the third quarter on Saturday, Sept. 25, 2021, at Spartan Stadium in East Lansing.

“Obviously, they felt he was attacking, making forceable contact to the head and neck area,” Blandino said on the telecast. “It’s close. I don’t know if it’s clear-cut. Again, if you can’t confirm all elements (of targeting), then you have to overturn. But obviously, they felt the elements were there.”

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Tucker did not say if Carollo told him whether the call was correct or not, or if the review was adjudicated properly.

“Once it goes to review and they review it and all that, then that's it. There is no other type of recourse or anything like that. It is what it is, and you gotta move on,” Tucker said. "Like I said it's already, it's already Tuesday. We play on Saturday. …

“I believe that we're always trying to get it right. We're coaching tackling with low delivery and certain ways for player safety reasons, obviously. And then we know how the intent is with the rule, to keep players safe. And I know the officials are trying to keep the players safe. It happens every week, whether it's college or pro or high school games. Whatever it is, some calls don't go your way. And that's a part of the game. It's a human performance business.”

MSU lost backup linebacker Chase Kline last week to the transfer portal, limiting an already-thin position. Seniors Noah Harvey and Ben VanSumeren saw action at linebacker throughout the game, and the Spartans used freshman Ma’a Gaoteote for the first time extensively on defense.

Gaoteote, a four-star recruit and Tucker’s top prospect in this class, has played 23 snaps on defense this season over four games. He will lose his ability to redshirt by appearing in one more game, but Tucker said he felt Gaoteote “was fairly productive” with a tackle and a pass breakup against WKU.

Michigan State's Payton Ma'a Gaoteote, left, tackles Western Kentucky's Mitchell Tinsley during the first quarter on Saturday, Oct. 2, 2021, at Spartan Stadium in East Lansing.
Michigan State's Payton Ma'a Gaoteote, left, tackles Western Kentucky's Mitchell Tinsley during the first quarter on Saturday, Oct. 2, 2021, at Spartan Stadium in East Lansing.

“When he got in there, he was ready to go. He got in there and was able to make some plays,” Tucker said. “We need to build on that, he individually is gonna need to build on that. He's gotta have a good week this week, like we all do, and we'll see what happens at the end of the week.”

Harvey, a fifth-year senior who started all seven games last season, played a season-high 23 snaps against the Hilltoppers after not playing in wins over Nebraska and Miami (Florida). VanSumeren, a Michigan transfer, also had one tackle Saturday and has six stops while playing in all five games this season.

MSU’s other starter, Quavaris Crouch, is a transfer from Tennessee. He ranks fourth on the Spartans with 32 tackles while starting all five games next to Haladay. Crouch has played 336 snaps, Haladay 320, VanSumeren 76 and Harvey 47.

“Everyone's got some type of role in the game or in practice,” Tucker said. “The older guys help our younger guys in terms of learning their assignments and how to practice or how to handle coaching or how to handle harsh criticism. The older players are doing a good job working with our younger guys.”

Contact Chris Solari: csolari@freepress.com. Follow him on Twitter @chrissolari. Read more on the Michigan State Spartans and sign up for our Spartans newsletter.

This article originally appeared on Detroit Free Press: Mel Tucker: Michigan State football must move past targeting call