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College football with John U. Bacon: Michigan and Michigan State are riding high. Will it last?

Aerial view of Michigan Stadium empty in Ann Arbor.
Photo by Alex Mertz on Unsplash
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Michigan will try to improve to 4-0 on the season when it hosts Rutgers at the Big House (above) in Ann Arbor Saturday. Michigan State is also 3-0 and will host Nebraska. Both teams are ranked in the top 20 nationally.

In college football, the Spartans are three, you know, the Wolverines are three, you know, Michigan is ranked 19th in the country. Michigan State is ranked 20th.

Michigan Radio sports commentator John U. Bacon joined Morning Edition host Doug Tribou to talk about whether the high times in Ann Arbor and East Lansing will last.

Saturday's games: Rutgers at Michigan - 3:30pm Nebraska at Michigan State - 7:00pm

Doug Tribou: After three weeks, Michigan State has already beaten a Big Ten opponent, Northwestern, and beaten a ranked opponent. The Spartans knocked off No. 24 Miami in Florida last weekend. What have been the keys to head coach Mel Tucker's success so far?

John U. Bacon: That one's simple, Doug. Mel Tucker himself. He has done an amazing job in his second year, and he's done it, in part, through mastering the transfer portal. I realize that sounds like a Star Trek thing to non-sports fans, but the new rule as of a couple of years ago is a player can transfer wherever they want, whenever they want, and play immediately.

So what did they do? Players have left Michigan State who knew that their playing time was going to be limited. And 20 very good players have come to Michigan State from [other colleges, including] Michigan, Louisville, Wake Forest, and Alabama. That's basically given him a new team, and one that is clearly very good.

DT: The Big Ten named MSU sophomore quarterback Payton Thorne, co-offensive player of the week for his performance in Miami last weekend. He threw for 261 yards and four touchdowns. How much will the Spartans' season hinge on Thorn's ability to keep growing and improving?

JUB: I don't know if he has to. He's just got to keep doing what he's doing. He's already there. This is the second part of the Mel Tucker equation. Yes, he's mastered the transfer portal in a way I think no other coach in America has, but he can also flat out coach.

[Thorne] was backup last year to Rocky Lombardi, who is now playing at at Northern Illinois. And he's in a [quarterback competition] all through August ... with Anthony Russo. Mel Tucker did not even name a starting quarterback for their first game. So, [Thorne] comes from kind of out of nowhere and he's lighting it up. That is coaching. That is obviously good talent selection. Kenneth Walker III, the running back, is doing a great job [under Tucker] as well.

DT: And MSU will host Nebraska Saturday in East Lansing. Let's turn to the Wolverines who have been running away from their opponents, literally. Michigan is averaging 350 yards rushing per game. That's tops in the nation. To be fair, they haven't faced the toughest competition yet. How will that run-first approach hold up in their Big Ten games?

"This team right now does not need him throwing three touchdowns a game. They need him not screwing up."
John U. Bacon on Michigan quarterback Cade McNamara

JUB: Well, if I had to choose between a run-first and a pass-first approach in the Big Ten, I'll take run first because that sets up everything else. But you are right that right now [quarterback] Cade McNamara, who is doing a pretty good job, has only had an average of 12 throws a game. That is about a third [or] a quarter of what other teams are doing. So that's fine against Rutgers this weekend, probably, but against Michigan State, against Wisconsin, [and] Penn State, they'll have to have a more balanced attack.

DT: Well, let's talk a little bit more about Cade McNamara, the starting quarterback for Michigan. What has stood out to you about him? From the limited work that we've seen...

JUB: This team right now does not need him throwing three touchdowns a game. They need him not screwing up. The good news is three games, not one interception. Three touchdowns only, but not one interception. He's been a virtually mistake-free quarterback.

DT: The Wolverines open their Big Ten conference schedule tomorrow afternoon hosting Rutgers in Ann Arbor. John, I hate to end this conversation, and the work week, on a low note, but let's talk about the Lions. They'll host the Baltimore Ravens on Sunday. Detroit is 0-2 in the Dan Campbell era. Is there any reason for Lions fans to hope that the new coach is not the same as the old coach?

JUB: One reason. The players do not hate Dan Campbell. They hated Matt Patricia.

DT: [Laughing] And should we have any more optimism for the remainder of the season?

JUB: I've got fifty years of my love that says no. Sorry.

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