On Saturday, #2 ranked Michigan State struggled, holding on for a 24-21 win over Purdue, thought of as the worst team in the Big Ten. Aside from beating Oregon at home, who then got embarrassed by Utah last week, the Spartans have convincing but unimpressive wins over Air Force, Western Michigan and Central Michigan. They didn't actually dominate any of those games and became uninterested after taking a three touchdown lead over Purdue. The killer instinct was not there and it took a 4th down stop with a minute to play until the game was clinched. So what does this mean for Rutgers? It means we have a chance. Here are five reasons to believe Rutgers can beat Michigan State next week.
The Spartans have been hit hard with injuries so far this season. Their starting right and left tackle are out for an extended period. The replacement at left tackle broke his leg against Purdue. Their starting center moved over to left tackle, the third different player at that position this season. Their starting safety left the game with injury for the second game in a row. The team already has a starting linebacker and starting cornerback out for the season. Their starting tight end did not play yesterday. Spartan green has become M*A*S*H* green. The injuries at this rate have to catch up with them at some point.
Purdue rushed for 165 yards and averaged 5.2 yards per carry against Michigan State. The Boilermakers entered the game with the 72nd ranked rushing attack in the NCAA. Air Force, the 5th ranked running team, put up 279 rushing yards at 5.5 yards a carry against MSU. Sparty did shut down Oregon, the 4th ranked rushing team, but that was before the injuries. Rutgers currently has the 27th ranked rushing attack for yards per game with 211 yards at 4.9 yards per carry. It's time for the offense to prove they can run against a Big Ten defense. Michigan State's defense is now ranked 46th against the run after the Purdue game. Josh Hicks and Robert Martin need to deliver a big effort against the Spartans with 30+ carries at 5+ yards per carry. They both average 6 yards per carry for the season and will need to continue that success next Saturday.
Michigan State opened the season at Western Michigan followed by four consecutive home games. They haven't left the state of Michigan once. This season the Spartans have been outscored 73-50 in the second half of games. They are 0-5 against the spread, consistently beating their opponents by less than the oddsmakers say they should. MSU is playing their first road game in a hostile environment (apologies PJ Fleck), the annual "blackout game" in primetime at Rutgers. Playing inferior teams closer than they should by getting outplayed in the second half of games is a bad trend that could lead to Sparty's demise on the road.
Special Teams Play
Rutgers needs strong special teams play and at least two big plays during the game. They still haven't blocked a kick yet this season, after blocking four or more kicks every season since 2009. There have been several close calls and it's time to get a big block in a big game. If they kick to Janarion Grant, he needs to take advantage of the opportunity, as they won't come often. Kyle Federico needs to deliver when called upon. Joey Roth has been solid this season and needs to punt well to help with starting field position. This unit has the potential to change the game in Rutgers favor when they are at their best. Rutgers is ranked 1st in the NCAA in special teams efficiencies, with Grant's three touchdowns a major factor, but they have defended well on returns as well. Michigan State is ranked 98th in special teams efficiencies. They need to take advantage.
Michigan State is a very good team, but they have not been playing like the #2 ranked team or close to their potential. They have suffered multiple injuries to starters on both sides of the ball. Rutgers is catching them at the peak of this all happening, and a week before the Spartans play in-state rival Michigan. If MSU has had trouble staying focused on delivering the knock out punch to opponents, having another distraction out there can't hurt. Rutgers is coming off the bye rested after a turbulent past month, consumed with adversity at every turn. They should be rejuvenated, healthier and ready to play after a week off. They will be wearing special helmets with their blackout uniforms. It will be the last game that coach Kyle Flood will miss due to his suspension. You can bet the players would love to give him a welcome back gift by knocking off Michigan State. A win of this magnitude would alter the path of this season. If Rutgers is going to come close to preseason expectations, the time is now to do it.