Mel Tucker took over a downtrodden Michigan State program before a pandemic-shortened 2020 season. For a variety of reasons, it was one to forget in East Lansing.
After a 2-5 finish in his inaugural campaign, Tucker refurbished the program with returning players and a variety of important plug-ins from the transfer portal. All, he said, are especially motivated to prove the doubters wrong.
“Our guys will not flinch,” Tucker said after the Spartans outlasted Indiana 20-15 on Saturday to move to 7-0 and 4-0 in the Big Ten. “They’re going to keep chopping wood, and they’re going to keep playing hard. The most important thing is the next play.”
Tucker was the unanimous choice as Big Ten coach of the first half of the season by writers from The Associated Press who cover the conference.
Michigan State moved up one spot this week to a season-high No. 9 ranking in the AP Top 25. It’s the highest ranking for the Spartans since the 2016 season.
OFFENSIVE PLAYER OF THE FIRST HALF
C.J. Stroud, Ohio State. Stroud hadn’t thrown as pass in a college football game when he was named the Buckeyes starting quarterback by coach Ryan Day. His inexperience showed early, but he’s now confidently running a passing game that is tops in the conference. He’s completing 66.2% of passes and averaging 339.8 yards per game for the Buckeyes (5-1, 3-0 Big Ten).
DEFENSIVE PLAYER OF THE FIRST HALF
Aidan Hutchinson, Michigan (6-0, 3-0). NFL scouts have been closely following the senior defensive end, who is projected to be a first-round pick. Hutchinson is the best player on one of the Big Ten’s top defenses, ranking among conference and national leaders with nearly one sack per game.
TreVeyon Henderson, Ohio State. Henderson has emerged as the next potential offensive star in a long line of them for the Buckeyes. He’s averaging 102 yards per game, but that’s deceiving because he’s been on the bench by halftime or shortly thereafter in Ohio State blowouts in the past three games. His 8.7 yards per carry lead the conference, and he’s got nine touchdowns.
MOST SURPRISING TEAM
Michigan State. Expectations were low for a team coming off a two-win season and led by an unproven head coach. Instead, the Spartans are off to their best start since 2015, when they made it into the College Football Playoff. A gantlet of Top 10 conference foes await in the second half. The upcoming Michigan game, said Spartans linebacker Cal Haladay, “will show us what we’re made of.”
“We just keep finding ways, even when everything is not clicking, to keep winning ball games,” tight end Tyler Hunt said.
MOST SURPRISING PLAYER
Kenneth Walker III, Michigan State. The transfer running back from Wake Forest scored on the first play of his debut with the Spartans, going 75 yards at Northwestern. He hasn’t slowed down. At Rutgers earlier this month, he had a 94-yard touchdown run that was the longest offensive play from scrimmage in the program’s 125-year history. He has compiled 997 yards and nine TDs.
MOST DISAPPOINTING TEAM
Wisconsin (3-3, 1-2). The Badgers had a rugged stretch of their 2021 schedule front-loaded. They lost to Penn State in the opener, and were hammered by Notre Dame and Michigan. The conference competition in the second half is less formidable, so there is room for improvement.
Scott Frost is in his fourth season at Nebraska and has failed to produce a winner. At 3-5 and 1-4 in the conference, the Huskers are plodding through another potential disappointing season. How long will Nebraska wait for Frost to flip the script?
Penn State QB Sean Clifford went out in the second quarter Oct. 9 at Iowa with a still-undisclosed injury. The Lions gained only 50 yards the rest of the game and lost 23-20. If he is out for any extended time, it could be season over for No. 7 Penn State (5-1, 2-1).
AP Sports Writers Eric Olson, Steve Megargee, Larry Lage, Noah Trister, Dave Campbell, Mike Marot, Andrew Selig and Tom Canavan contributed.