What happened when the Spartans and Scarlett Knights met last season is what could make this a very short read. Michigan State committed seven turnovers to the same Greg Schiano coached Rutgers team they will face this Saturday. But for Mel Tucker and #11 ranked MSU, their focus should be on more than just taking care of the football. Any road game in the Big Ten conference is a challenge for any team. Here is how the Spartans can make it a challenge for the home team.
Michigan State’s identity in the early going of the 2021 campaign has been their offense. Assuming their defense holds their own, Payton Thorne, Jalen Nailor, and others should steady their team to a win. They key however, is to not let Rutgers take away the pass or the run game.
How Nebraska was almost able to shock the Spartans in week four, was by forcing them to mainly throw the ball. By holding Kenneth Walker lll to just 3.2 yards per carry, the Cornhuskers were able to put pressure on Thorne and force him to make tough throws. As a result, the MSU offense faltered, the defense tired out, and the road team was able to force overtime.
Jay Johnson’s offense has recorded 450 yards or more from scrimmage in four of the Spartans five games. The one game they didn’t put up that much? The escape in overtime against Nebraska where they were held to 254 yards. On the flip side, the Scarlett Knights have eclipsed 450 yards just once this year.
Michigan State can easily run up the score in this game. If Payton Thorne is able to hit long passes like he did against Western Kentucky, the run game will open up. Rutgers has been able to stop the run this year, with their most recent loss to Ohio State being an outlier. Running backs coach William Peagler is definitely watching film on how they limited Michigan to just 112 yards on the ground. Kenneth Walker lll currently leads the country with 680 rushing yards. If he comes out of this game still wearing his crown, Michigan State will be in good shape.
Special Teams Remains Special
The last two home games the Spartan Stadium crowd has generated a buzz whenever Jayden Reed has fielded a punt. The explosive wide receiver is putting himself on the radar as one of the most dangerous returners in the nation. Averaging nearly 40 yards per return is no small feat, and is definitely a nice luxury for MSU.
“It’s great when you look up at the scoreboard and it’s 7-0 and you haven’t been on the field yet,” said Payton Thorne after Saturday’s win that featured the Spartans once again scoring on their first play from scrimmage. “That is a credit to our special teams unit… I know Coach Els has these guys working hard.”
Senior punter Bryce Baringer is also making a huge difference for this unit. His 51.9 average yards per punt leads the entire Big Ten and is second best in all of college football. Road games can sometimes turn in to a battle of field position. Having a punter like Baringer and a special teams unit that has been solid as of late, can pay dividends.
Getting Off The Field On Defense
The Michigan State defense is near the bottom of the conference in some important categories. More specifically the rate at which their opponent converts on certain downs. Opposing teams have converted on third down 39% of the time, and on fourth down 79% of the time, which puts MSU at 12th and 14th in the Big Ten respectively in those area’s. Scottie Hazelton’s defense has even allowed the second most first downs this season, only trailing Illinois.
Western Kentucky had possession of the football for the majority of their 48-31 loss at the hands of the Spartans, and Nebraska kept them on the field virtually the entire second half of the September 25th contest. Michigan State has had a lot of different players step up on defense this year, but that doesn’t mean they can’t get gassed. Xavier Henderson and Angelo Grose won’t be putting up double digit tackle totals every game, which is why it’s important that the Rutgers offense doesn’t run the table. Not saying the Spartans have to get revenge by forcing seven turnovers of their own in Piscataway, but a couple takeaways would certainly help with that.
Follow Alex Mayer on Twitter: @almay_99