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Michigan State Spartans' head coach Mel Tucker leaves Northwestern Wildcats guessing as both prepare for football opener

Michigan State head football coach Mel Tucker talks to reporters during a news conference at Big Ten Conference media days at Lucas Oil Stadium in Indianapolis on July 23. (AP file photo)

By LARRY LAGE

AP Sports Writer

EAST LANSING — Mel Tucker would not budge.

Michigan State’s second-year football coach was asked various questions in an attempt to find out who he’s starting at quarterback Friday night at Northwestern.

Tucker had no interest in helping the Wildcats prepare for the season-opening game.

“I don’t like to tell our opponents who we’re playing or who they should expect to see,” he said this week. “It makes sense, doesn’t it?”

Tucker’s choices under center are former Temple quarterback Anthony Russo, one of 20 transfers on the reshaped team, and redshirt sophomore Payton Thorne.

“The guys competed and the competition was good for our team,” Tucker said. “I commend them both for the way they competed. We have two really good players that we feel good about.”

Russo has 31 games of experience, including 26 starts, over three seasons with the Owls. The 6-foot-4, 240-pound pocket passer has 44 career passing touchdowns and 32 interceptions.

The 6-2, 210-pound Thorne can make plays and buy extra time with his feet. He also has the benefit of playing in four games, starting one, last year. Thorne was 48 of 85 for 582 yards with as many touchdowns (three) as interceptions (three) in Tucker’s first season.

“We can adjust to either quarterback,” receiver Jalen Nailor said. “It’s been a great competition all fall camp.”

Tucker and his players mentioned more than once that they have been waiting eight months to get back on the field. They’re looking forward to making memories with a new-look team after enduring a pandemic-altered season with a 2-5 record.

Despite the miserable mark, Tucker and his team pulled off two upsets against ranked teams: No. 11 Northwestern and No. 13 Michigan. Those accomplishments, though, have not been mentioned by Tucker to boost his players’ confidence coming off a shaky season.

“The past is not necessarily predictive of the future,” he said.

Tucker has not and will not make excuses for a tough transition from Colorado to Michigan State, but the timing of his arrival was less than ideal for him, the Spartans and the Buffaloes.

Mark Dantonio retired as the school’s winningest coach in February, 2020, ending a 13-year run that included three Big Ten titles and a College Football Playoff appearance.

Tucker was hired away from Colorado, where he was 5-7 in his only season two years ago, and shortly thereafter the pandemic sent his new players home.

“We know our players a lot better now,” Tucker acknowledged. “And, I feel like we’re more prepared.”

Michigan State head football coach Mel Tucker talks to reporters during a news conference at Big Ten Conference media days at Lucas Oil Stadium in Indianapolis on July 23. (AP file photo)