The date was Saturday, Nov. 30, 2019. The opponent was Maryland. It was senior day in East Lansing. We didn’t know it at the time, but it was also the final home game for Coach Mark Dantonio. I had to look up the score, but MSU won that game 19-16 in comeback fashion. A pair of fourth quarter field goals from Matt Couglin in the final period gave the Spartans the win.
Little did we know at the time that when we sang MSU Shadows, the players entered the tunnel for the final time, and as we all went back to our cars as the twilight silence fell that evening that fans would not be back in Spartan Stadium again for well over a year. Little did we know how much the world would change in just a few short months.
Now, here in the spring of 2021, the Michigan State University football team and staff also looks quite a bit different. For the first time in almost 17 months, I also got to see them live.
One of the perks on writing for The Only Colors is that we have access to media credentials. That means that I was able to watch the game from the warm and dry confines of the press box area, masked, and socially distanced from the two guys at the State News with whom I shared a row. It was certainly a unique way to experience the game.
What’s It Really Like to Be a Member of the Media?
On Saturday morning, I completed the COVID-19 screening questionnaire on the MSU website and made the drive to East Lansing. Once there, I was able to park in lot 62 just north of the stadium.
The rain and the prohibition against tailgating made for a quiet, short walk to the stadium after I arrived. I only saw a handful of people in the parking lot, most of whom were visiting the make-shift booth that was set up to support the Michigan State swimming and diving program. Other than that, it was pretty much a ghost town, certainly compared to the atmosphere of a normal spring game or football Saturday.
Outside the west side of Spartan Stadium an hour before the start of the spring game
That said, I did get a look at a few Spartan Marching Band members on their way in from Munn Field. Their approach to the field was a bit more casual than the last time I attended a game. The wind instruments also appeared to have “masks” of sorts covering the bells.
Member of the SMB “marching” into Spartan Stadium for the spring game
Then, I proceeded to the media will call area to pick up my credential. After a quick check of my computer bag by security, I stepped up to the check-in desk, they verified my identity and that I had cleared the COVID screening, and I was given the credential and lanyard.
Before heading taking the elevator to the eighth floor, I made sure to pay my respects to the original terra cotta Spartan statue, located in the west side of the stadium right next to the media will call. It is always good to see the original Sparty.
Sparty. Still lookin’ good.
Once I arrived at the media level of the eighth floor, the restrooms and concession stand were pointed out, and then I was directed to my seat. On this particular day I was assigned a chair at a long narrow bench on the south side of stadium.
I was fortunate enough to be assigned the first row, right at the glass. I was positioned roughly on the 15-yard line, high above the upper deck. I brought a pair of binoculars just in case, and I found that I needed them often.
Not a bad place to watch a game...especially when it’s raining
At my seat was simple a hardcopy of the roster and instructions on how to connect to the Wi-Fi. As for the schedule of the practice, we were just referred to the official MSU football Twitter account, which was not a lot to go on, but which did give an outline of the activities.
The periods were clearly shown on the scoreboard as the practice proceeded. The clock was running to show how much time remained in each period, but no points were shown for the offensive or defense. We did not get to see the live Big Ten Network feed and the public address announcements were honestly hard to hear.
While the players were warming up and as I settled in, I got a feel for how the university was handling the small crowd, the cheerleaders, and the band. As for the Spartan Marching Band, they were seated in their normal area, but they were socially distanced such that they were taking up the entire section.
The Spartan Marching Band in the era of social distancing
As for the cheerleading team, from what I could tell, they were located in the two accessibility/wheelchair platforms located in the student section and in north end zone above the tunnel where there was a lot of space to spread out. I saw later that a masked Sparty was also in the house, but I did not personally see him.
Social-distanced MSU Cheerleaders
I will give a major shout-out to the cheerleading team. During the latter scrimmage portion of the practice, the squad was able to successful start “the wave” with the few thousand Spartans fans that braved the weather and the pandemic to attend the game. That was probably the loudest cheer of the afternoon.
About the actual football...
Of course, the purpose of attending the spring practice game was to get a chance to see what the latest version of Spartan Football actually looks like after winter conditioning and a full set of spring practices for the first time in head coach Mel Tucker’s tenure.
As the schedule suggested, the early part of the practice mostly involved individual position unit drills. Those that watched the Big Ten Network coverage of the game likely got a flavor of what was happening, but it did not capture the entire scope of the event.
From the press box it was clear that there was a lot going on, all at once, and it was all happening very quickly and with precision. The different position groups were spread out all over the field and there was a flurry of activity everywhere. On some level, it was chaos, but it looked to be highly controlled chaos, ad more like a finely-tuned machine. It was impressive.
As the practice went on, MSU moved to more team-oriented drills. At times, there were full team 11-on-11 drills, and at other times there were seven-on-seven drills. In most cases, it appeared that the No. 1 offense would go against the No. 2 defense. For parts of the practice they used an extremely fast tempo. The Spartans also practiced third-down plays and other situational drills.
At the end of the practice, the entire team ran a series of sprints near the north end zone. It is my understanding that one of Mel Tucker’s mentors, former Michigan State head coach Nick Saban (you may have heard of him), used to do something similar.
With all of the action happening so quickly, it was hard to see everything that was happening. That said, here are some of my main observations about the different position groups and what Michigan State fans might be able to expect come the fall.
Redshirt sophomore quarterback Payton Thorne and graduate transfer Anthony Russo both took a roughly equal number of reps with the first-string offense. That said, Thorne seemed to be the first quarterback to take snaps in those situations. It appears that Thorne right now is QB-1A, while Russo is QB-1B.
Thorne has more mobility and more experience with the Jay Johnson offense, but Russo has more experience at the position at the division one level overall, and just arrived to East Lansing in January. He is also a self-proclaimed “film-room junkie” who just might make a serious leap over Thorne this summer.
Both quarterbacks made some nice throws throughout the afternoon, include=ing a deep shot to junior wide receiver Jayden Reed by each quarterback. Thorne did throw an interception to nickelback Michael Dowell during the third-down drill late in the scrimmage, but this was the only major error from either player. I would expect this competition to go well into the fall.
As for the other quarterbacks, red shirt freshman Noah Kim was the clear No. 3. Kim also made several good throws, including a jump-ball completion to Ian Stewart early in the scrimmage and a nifty touch pass again to Stewart later. His future with the Spartans looks bright.
Michigan State Spring Game
Ian Stewart wins the jump ball on a pass from Noah Kim Photo by Nic Antaya/Getty Images
The other two scholarship quarterbacks, junior Theo Day and true freshman Hamp Fay only took a handful of snaps each and neither made a strong impression. But, the mere fact that the younger Noah Kim has clearly passed Theo Day was certainly a factor is Day announcing his entry into the transfer portal on Wednesday.
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