Michigan vs. Michigan State: Spartans trying to block out all distractions, focus on rival

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EAST LANSING — Paul Bunyan’s buzz continues to grow.

Fox Sports’ pregame show will be on campus. So will ESPN’s "College GameDay." And a lot of fans.

A Saturday morning at Michigan State football unlike any other that will build to a midday showdown between a pair of unbeatens. With the eyes of the college football world watching and waiting in anticipation.

But before the sixth-ranked Spartans and No. 7 Michigan football get to kickoff, coach Mel Tucker wants his players to isolate themselves from distractions and maintain the focus that got MSU off to a perfect start seven games into his second season.

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His mission is “preparing for pressure, not just being ready.”

“We talk about blocking out the noise every single day. And as you go on the journey of a season, the noise gets louder and louder,” Tucker said Monday. “And so we have to focus on what matters and what's gonna affect the outcome of the game. And one of the things that you have to do is eliminate distractions and invest your time wisely. Where is your attention? Where is your focus? What's important, what has substance? What matters and what doesn't?

Michigan State Spartans running back Connor Heyward (11) celebrates with teammates after scoring a touchdown in the fourth quarter against the Michigan Wolverines at Michigan Stadium in Ann Arbor, Saturday, Oct. 31, 2020.
Michigan State Spartans running back Connor Heyward (11) celebrates with teammates after scoring a touchdown in the fourth quarter against the Michigan Wolverines at Michigan Stadium in Ann Arbor, Saturday, Oct. 31, 2020.

“I believe in communicating those things and laying it out for players. Give them the answers to the tests — you want to do this, you want to do this, you want to do this, you're gonna do it this way and this is why it's important to do it this way. And then you hold everyone accountable to do those things on a consistent basis. And that's every day in everything we do. There's nothing different this week about that.”

ESPN made its announcement shortly after Tucker left the podium for his weekly news conference. He did not hold one last week with the Spartans on a bye coming off a 20-15 win at Indiana and with swirling rumors about him possibly being a candidate for the job at LSU.

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But Tucker and his players hammered the same drumbeat of continuing to focus on what’s next — which happens to be the possibly biggest meeting in the past 50 years of the 114-game rivalry.

“You gotta prepare like you never prepared before. But also, you got to keep a level mind,” said MSU sophomore quarterback Payton Thorne, who has yet to play against the Wolverines. “You can't get caught up too much in the hype. At the end of the day, it's a 60-minute game — the rules and the game really is not changing, it's just the opponent that's changing.”

It will be the first time Fox and ESPN will bring their dueling pregame shows to the same campus. The two networks both broadcast from Chicago earlier this fall before the Wisconsin-Notre Dame game at Soldier Field. ESPN has not broadcast its Saturday football show at MSU since 2015.

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Fox announced Saturday it planned to take its Big Noon Kickoff show to the MSU-Michigan game, a game it will broadcast nationally. Both teams are 7-0 and 4-0 in the Big Ten, and it is the first meeting between the Spartans and Wolverines as top-10 programs since 1964. Kickoff is noon Saturday.

“I think the more noise, the better for the team. We have to play,” senior tight end Connor Heyward said. “Obviously, we love the hype — we see it all over social media, you see it on campus, you already see them setting up tailgates and stuff like that. But honestly, we listen to what the coaches say and what our peers and the other support people have to say. We don't really care about what's going on outside the (football) building.

“It's an opportunity, I think we've worked for this. We're 7-0, but we need to go 1-0 this weekend. Hopefully the hype continues. And in order for that to happen, we have to go out there and produce.”

Michigan Wolverines defensive back Gemon Green (22) defends Michigan State Spartans receiver Jalen Nailor during the second quarter at Michigan Stadium in Ann Arbor, Saturday, Oct. 31, 2020.
Michigan Wolverines defensive back Gemon Green (22) defends Michigan State Spartans receiver Jalen Nailor during the second quarter at Michigan Stadium in Ann Arbor, Saturday, Oct. 31, 2020.

There also has been plenty of hype surrounding Tucker with the turnaround he has orchestrated so far after going 2-5 a year ago in his debut. And this season’s success at the midpoint put more eyeballs on him as a potential candidate for another major program.

LSU’s interest in Tucker first came public on Fox’s pregame show, just before MSU’s 20-15 win at Indiana on Oct. 16. The Tigers reached a separation agreement with current coach Ed Orgeron a day later, which will be effective at the end of the season.

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However, Tucker spent last week working with his team on correcting mistakes before hitting the road recruiting, as did his assistants. He posted photos from a private airplane after his trip to Atlanta, then managed to get to a local high school game Friday night.

They all reconvened Monday for a history lesson about the Paul Bunyan Trophy, with keeping details of what was said in house, and starting to turn toward more schematics of preparing to face a Michigan team the Spartans shocked last year, 27-24, in a near-empty Michigan Stadium.

There will be plenty of noise with a sellout crowd at Spartan Stadium, but Tucker wants to make sure his players remain in the routines they rode to get to this point of national attention and potentially bigger things in November.

“We have a job to do out here, we have things we have to do every day to prepare. The less distracted we are, the better,” Tucker said. “And from what I saw today and what I saw last week, I saw a very focused football team, a very focused staff. And today's practice was very sharp. I didn't see any indication of being distracted — coaches, staff or players — today.

“I didn't see that today, so we'll take the next step tomorrow.”

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: Michigan State football focused Michigan, blocking out distractions