EAST LANSING, Mich. — Michigan State players are less than a week removed from the suspension of coach Mel Tucker and now have to overcome the distraction and face explosive No. 8 Washington.
The Spartans (2-0) and Huskies (2-0) meet Saturday without Tucker, who was suspended Sunday after allegations went public that he sexually harassed a rape survivor during a phone call last year. A hearing is scheduled for the week of Oct. 5 to determine if Tucker violated the school’s sexual harassment and exploitation policy.
Interim coach Harlon Barnett, a former Michigan State defensive back who spent seven years in the NFL and is in his 15th season on the Spartans staff, said the team will be ready to face star quarterback Michael Penix Jr. and the top passing offense in the Bowl Subdivision.
“Our job as a staff is to focus on our guys and get them ready and prepared for the game on Saturday,” Barnett said. “They’ve been focused. They’re locked in. They know the challenge that’s ahead of us with Penix. He’s a really good football player. …We know the challenge that is before us.”
Penix has had success against Michigan State in three previous games. He has completed 82 of 120 passes for 1,003 yards and nine touchdowns against the Spartans, including last year’s 39-28 win in Seattle. In his first game against Michigan State in 2019 as Indiana’s quarterback, he set a program record with 20 straight completions. This season he is ranked No. 1 in FBS total offense, averaging 434 yards per game.
Washington coach Kalen DeBoer is downplaying comparisons between Saturday and last year’s game at Arizona State when the Sun Devils pulled out a 45-38 upset under an interim coach following the firing of Herm Edwards.
“I’m really feeling that you don’t make a big deal of it,” DeBoer said. “Because, again, it’s going to be about the 100-plus guys they have on their team that want to do something special. They’re going to be playing at home, trying to go 3-0 in an environment that is hostile. It’s going to be an awesome atmosphere. I think there will obviously be some distractions that they have, but we can’t let those distractions be ours.”
Along with elevating Barnett to interim coach, the school announced that Mark Dantonio, the winningest head coach in school history, will return as an associate head coach for the Spartans.
“Coach D brings the calming presence, the wisdom, the knowledge of being a head coach — a very successful head coach at that,” Barnett said. “And so he’s bringing all that as our associate head coach. Any and all ways, he’s willing to help with us, and that’s what he’s going to do.”
Dantonio announced his retirement in February 2020, ending a 13-year run in which his teams won three Big Ten titles.
When the teams played last season in Seattle, wide receiver Germie Bernard got some limited action on the field for the Spartans. When the teams meet on Saturday, he’ll likely be in a similar role of getting some limited action — for the Huskies.
Bernard was a Washington commit, but reopened his recruitment following the coaching change with the Huskies and spent his first season at Michigan State. He had seven catches all season for the Spartans and decided after last year to head back west and join the Huskies.
In three games this season, Bernard has five receptions for 90 yards and a touchdown.
“Fortunately, it went full circle maybe like you’d even hoped originally that he’s back here. It’s great to have him here for sure,” DeBoer said.