EAST LANSING - Mel Tucker doesn't talk about injuries. He doesn't have any updates on his eight suspended Michigan State football players, either.
But the third-year coach did make a rare, stark admission about what is happening behind closed doors with the Spartans and how both of those problems are affecting his defense.
"We don't hit," Tucker said during his weekly news conference Monday. "The only day we have contact, that we hit with pads on, is game day. It's been like that for the last three weeks, because we don't have enough guys to practice and we don't have enough healthy bodies. And so we're just trying to get guys to the game, so that we have enough guys to be able to play in the game."
Make that four straight weeks of practicing without tackling, as the Spartans prepare for a critical final regular-season game Saturday at No. 10 Penn State (4 p.m./FS1).
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MSU (5-6, 3-5 Big Ten) needs one more victory to reach the postseason after blowing a 17-point lead in Saturday's 39-31 double-overtime home collapse against Indiana. Yet Tucker avoided mentioning the words "bowl eligibility" in his opening statement Monday - the same goes for conversations he and his staff are having with their players this week, he added.
"Obviously we have a lot to play for this week," Tucker said. "We have a trophy game vs. Penn State, an opportunity to play a top-10 team on the road in a very hostile environment, which we know what that is there. And obviously, it's the next game. And it's the last regular-season game, guaranteed opportunity for us. So it's huge."
Asked if he intentionally omitted talk of a potential bowl game, Tucker nodded.
"I don't think there's any reason to continue to harp on that, because that's really talking about the end result. What we really need to focus on as a program, with players and coaches, is what we need to do every single day to prepare for that opportunity," Tucker said. "And so basically when I'm talking to (the media), that's how I'm talking to the team, because that's the mindset that we have. We have to be very intentional with words we use in the messaging, what the players hear from me and hear from our staff. Semantic responsibility is important. What comes out of my mouth and how I say it and why I say it matters. So our focus is on the process.
"We all know what's at stake in terms of bowl eligibility. I mean, that almost goes without saying."
Getting that sixth win to qualify will be a difficult task in the battle for the Land-Grant Trophy against the Nittany Lions (9-2, 6-2), who average 184.1 rushing yards per game. Rush defense is an area Tucker feels the Spartans are most vulnerable without the suspended players and other key injuries wearing down his team as it enters what might be its final game of the season.
Saturday against an anemic Indiana run game that entered averaging a meager 61.57 rushing yards in Big Ten play, the Spartans allowed 257 yards on the ground. It was the second-most they have given up, next to Michigan's 276 rushing yards, and five conference opponents in MSU's past eight games have posted 200-plus yards against its defense.
The Hoosiers' Shaun Shivers became the eighth straight running back to eclipse 100 yards against MSU, and his 79-yard touchdown run early in the third quarter that sparked Indiana's comeback is the longest play from scrimmage against the Spartans this season. Their defense missed a number of tackle chances in the open field all afternoon, both on defense and special teams, where IU had an 88-yard kickoff return touchdown and another for 43 yards to open the game.
"I think it might have been three touchdowns where dudes went untouched," safety Xavier Henderson said Saturday.
The Spartans have given up 214.3 rushing yards in eight Big Ten games, the worst in the league.
"That lack of contact, full-speed contact and hitting, shows up mostly in the run game as opposed to obviously in the passing game," Tucker said. "We're coming up with some ways to try to mitigate those circumstances and really get back to being able to play the type of run defense that we need to play.
"That's gonna be our challenge this week. We have plenty of toughness, we have enough players to get it done. We're gonna have to adjust some the ways we go about preparing the guys. Still without contact, because we certainly can't afford to do that."
MSU has played without defensive ends Jeff Pietrowski and Khris Bogle, both of whom have been injured since September, and linebacker Darius Snow was lost for the season to a leg injury in the opener against Western Michigan. Defensive tackle Simeon Barrow and defensive end Avery Dunn both left the Indiana game with injuries but returned.
Eight other defensive players also missed their third straight game due to suspension for an altercation against the Wolverines in the Michigan Stadium tunnel Oct. 29: linebacker/defensive end Jacoby Windmon; defensive ends Zion Young, Brandon Wright and Itayvion "Tank" Brown; and defensive backs Angelo Grose, Khary Crump, Justin White and Malcom Jones. Tucker said he has "no new information" about those players, who have not been allowed to practice or take part in team activities since the coach and athletic director Alan Haller issued the suspensions with a criminal investigation pending. That case remains in the hands of the Washtenaw County Prosecutor's Office, and the Big Ten has yet to weigh in on the tunnel incident in the 23 days since it happened.
"The expectation, for me, is when I get more information, then we can regroup," Tucker said. "That's the only expectation that I have. And so that's what it is."
This article originally appeared on Detroit Free Press: Mel Tucker explains why MSU's rush defense has failed lately