Michigan State, without suspended Mel Tucker, is routed by Washington

EAST LANSING, Mich. — Unhappiness, the theme of a difficult week at Michigan State, snowballed Saturday evening into several fresh forms. There it was in a student section both emptying and then emptied almost to desertion — during the second quarter. There it was in a home team that looked hapless, helpless and hopeless six days after the suspension of Coach Mel Tucker amid a sexual harassment investigation.

It resonated in the scoreboard as the teams filed to halftime: 35-0 in favor of No. 8 Washington, which does look legit. And it shouted from the passing stats of Washington sixth-year college quarterback Michael Penix Jr., who came up just 25 yards shy of 400 — by halftime.

The final score was 41-7. Penix wound up with 473 passing yards in just shy of three quarters. In a hollowed-out stadium early in the fourth, the public address played Journey’s “Don’t Stop Believin’.”

The home fans who dominated the 70,528 at Spartan Stadium cheered at first for happy increments. It’s just that happy increments wound up all they got as their team fell to 2-1, including 0-1 under “acting coach” Harlon Barnett. Everything about the game upheld the sneers of those who saw the first two wins as fending off less-resourced opponents (Central Michigan, Richmond).

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All of it looked so unusually unhappy that you had to consider the weight of the bygone week, which began in earnest last Sunday when USA Today reported that Brenda Tracy, a gang-rape survivor and educator who had spoken to Michigan State’s football team about sexual assault among the many schools she counsels, had accused Tucker of sexual harassment, while Tucker maintained their relationship had been consensual. This happened less than two years after Tucker had finished an 11-2 season with a Peach Bowl win and had seen his contract bloat to $95 million over 10 years in another college football case of rash decision-making reaped from limited evidence.

While the walk to the stadium felt like the usual walk to the stadium — people drank, and so on — the game felt like one large, empty tank.

If misery can take shape within the specific plays of a football game, and not just the score, that certainly happened here. Penix often stood back there with so much time that he could have called to check on his parents. Husky receivers roamed in unmanned areas or, if not, outfought defenders for 50-50 balls. They often ran open, really open or really, really open. Tackling, that undervalued skill in football, looked like an issue for the Spartans as Huskies bounced away from them, as on the opening touchdown, a one-yard run on a jet sweep by Germie Bernard, a compelling talent from Las Vegas who played last year at Michigan State.

Michigan State had gone from 11-2 (2021) to 5-7 (2022) to somewhat worse than overmatched (2023).

On Washington’s first play from scrimmage, Penix threw downfield to receiver Jalen McMillan running free near the left hash, and McMillan grabbed the ball and continued running for 39 yards. The scoring drives hurried: 55 yards in four plays, 44 in three, 95 in three, 48 in four, 66 in five. Plays went in such massive chunks — 39 yards, 38, 50, 30, 34 — that Washington never managed to convert a third down in the first half. Of course, it went just 0 for 2.

Jack Westover, a tight end from the Seattle area, caught three touchdown passes before halftime — of five, 13 and seven yards, that last one just six seconds before halftime when he wriggled atop a defender and into the front edge of the end zone. At 6:49 of the second quarter, Penix, who played four seasons at Indiana before these last two at Washington, stood at 13 for 14 for 252 yards, three touchdowns and zero interceptions. Soon, he did throw an incompletion, but then a flag for interference flew in. He finished 27 for 35.

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All the while, Michigan State never visited the red zone in the first three quarters as quarterback Noah Kim, a graduate of Westfield High, struggled — 12 for 31 for 136 yards and one interception. The first major boos of Barnett’s interim era came at 9:26 of the second quarter, when Kim handed off to Jordon Simmons on third and 17 from the Michigan State 8-yard line. (Simmons gained four yards, and the Spartans punted.)

Washington, which defeated Michigan State, 39-28, last September in Seattle, did arrive here 1,850 miles from home as rich in offensive threats who could continue to spice up life this fall for their barking fans. Receivers Rome Odunze, Ja’Lynn Polk and McMillan excelled even as they all benefited from Penix’s release, in which the ball hurries outward with coveted zip. In four games against Michigan State for Indiana and then Washington, Penix has passed for 286, 320, 397 and 473 yards, making it a relief that Michigan State never has to see him again. The Huskies, with their imaginative offense under head coach Kalen DeBoer and coordinator Ryan Grubb, seem ready to grace the country with some purple power from the northwest, one season before they join the Big Ten and a matchup such as this becomes intraconference.

On Saturday, it just felt unhappy.

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