No one envisioned at the start of the season if Rutgers had the same record as Michigan State for this game, it would be a bad thing. And yet here we are, as both teams enter this Saturday’s matchup with identical 2-7 records and winless in Big Ten play. Something will have to give this weekend, as one program will walk away with their first conference win of the season. It’s a shocking development for the Spartans, who made the college football playoff last season. The last time they had a losing record was in 2009 and its been 10 years since they finished a season with less than 6 wins. To help prepare for this game, I was fortunate to speak with McLain Moberg from SB Nation’s Michigan State blog, The Only Colors. He gave some great insight into what has gone wrong this season and what we can expect from the Spartans this weekend. Let’s dive in!
Obviously it's been a very disappointing season for Michigan State. After making the college football playoff last season, the Spartans are now one of two winless teams in Big Ten play (welcome!). What were the expectations heading into this season and how did you personally think this season would unfold? Were there any warning signs this would be a difficult season?
The expectations were high for the Spartans this year. They were Big Ten Champions again, got into the playoffs and were badly beaten by Alabama, even with that loss there was no indication that Sparty would lose 7 straight the following year. To be honest all signs pointed towards another promising season. I personally thought the Spartans would be 10-2 with losses to Ohio State and Notre Dame. My prediction came long before week one unfolded. The big question mark to me was Tyler O'Connor, he is a fifth year senior who never really saw the field because of Connor Cook. He managed to win a huge game against Ohio State last year, but with bad conditions it was mostly a grind it out type of game. Tyler was not asked to do much in that game as he only attempted 12 passes for 89 yards and one touchdown. The defense played extremely well that day only allowing 132 total yards to a very good Ohio State team. From what I have seen this year Tyler has been good in situations where the run game is rolling, and the defense is performing at a high level (two things that have not happened very often this year). He is a game manager, not the kind of quarterback that you can rely on to win you a game when the chips are down (as fans have been accustomed to with past guys like Cook and Kirk Cousins). It is my believe that this year is an arbitration and that the Spartans will be back in top form fairly soon but this year may go down as the worst season in school history.
Head coach Mark Dantonio has a strong reputation in player development, taking less heralded recruits and forming very good teams year after year. In your opinion, what changed this season and what is your outlook for the future/next season?
There is a lot of freshman on the field right now, especially on the defensive side of the ball. What I mean by that is development still needs time. Consistently trying to turn 2 star recruits into first round draft picks is a daunting task. I attribute it to the recruiting more than anything because their recent records and national recognition do not line up with the type of recruiting classes that have still been coming in. Michigan State still struggles to land the four and five star recruits year to year, even with the amazing records and accolades that Mark Dantonio has helped the program accomplish. In 2017 they are on the verge of having a top 25 recruiting class and 2018 isn't looking to bad either. So to say that Mark is strong in player development is true but also an unfair expectation for fans and analysts to have year in and year out, eventually the national recognition that this program has gained recently (and has so severely lacked in the past) needs to pan out.
The offensive woes have been a big part of the problem this season. How much confidence was there in Tyler O'Connor going into the season and how has he matched expectations? Has the appreciation for the career that Connor Cook had increased this season, as it seemed from the outside he was never truly loved, despite his success?
I would say there was higher expectations for him than there was confidence. The confidence may have been backed by fans being used to reloading for the last 9 years under Mark Dantonio and Co. Truly Tyler did not have a long enough resume to say whether he would be super successful or not. Connor Cook was taken for granted in that aspect as fans were used to having such a good quarterback in recent years that thoughts of doubt or suspicion never crept in when it came to Tyler O'Connor. Speaking for the fans and myself I would think that an appreciation for Cook has reached heights that it never had while he was an active member of the team. He is the winningest quarterback in Spartan history and lead the Spartans to many huge wins. Cook was a very good quarterback at the college level and dominated prominent programs in Michigan and Ohio State. If this season doesn't make you love and miss Connor Cook even more than nothing will.
The offense averages over 400 yards a game but just under 24 points a game. Returning players LJ Scott and RJ Shelton have pretty solid stats this season. What has led to the lack of scoring and how has the team performed in the red zone this season?
Michigan State has had 31 total red zone trips this year, that number has them ranking in at No. 117. 8 trips have been rushing touchdowns, 10 have been passing touchdowns and 5 have been field goals. To sum it up they have been successful 23 out of the 31 times. Percentages wise it is 74.2 percent. Looking at the number people would think that is actually pretty good, the Spartans are converting in the red zone nearly 75% of the time. That is just simply not the case, this team is not getting in the red zone nearly enough and when they have been field goals were kicked in critical parts of games. The offense may rack up 400+ yards per game but they are virtually non existent if it is third down and long. The offense works best when the run game is successful and in short yardage situations. We simply do not have the personnel, last year in third and long situations fans could rely on Cook's arm strength and accuracy to advance the ball. Tyler O'Connor lacks the skill set to move the ball in long yardage situations, which stalls out drives on many occasions as penalties/inability to move the ball on the ground have put the Spartans in some tough 2nd and 3rd down situations.
The defense has long been a strength of the program, but have allowed an average of 30 points a game this season. What has changed and how confident are you this is a one year blip?
No pressure on the quarterback, open field tackling is an issue, and blowing coverages are just a few things this Michigan State defense has done on a consistent basis in 2016. The secondary was not great last year either so that doesn't surprise me. The defensive line was really good last year but many players were lost this year, most importantly being Shilique Calhoun. So the drop off on D-line play was surprising but the secondary remained the same. While all the things I listed are huge it all amounts to what I view as being the defense's biggest flaw, third down defense. Michigan State is ranked No. 102 in terms of getting off the field on third down, opponents are converting third downs against the Spartans 44.2% of the time. The defense's inability to get off the field on third down is consistently leading to scores for the opponent. As I stated earlier there are quite a few freshman on this team, particularly when it comes to the defense. So in my opinion the inexperience of the defense and lack of senior stardom that this team is used to are the biggest changes on defense this year.
Which key players other than ones already mentioned, should Rutgers fans should be aware of in the game?
The guy to keep an eye on this week is Damion Terry, Coach Dantonio is being optimistic that O'Connor may be cleared to practice and play in this weekend's game but nothing is guaranteed on that front, the team plans on being very careful with his injury. Terry was the spark the Spartans needed on offense, he came in and completed 6-12 passes for 50 yards and a touchdown on a fourth down throw to R.J. Shelton. That gave Michigan State a lead that the defense was not able to maintain. Mark Dantonio seems to be high on Tyler O'Connor this year but in my opinion he is not the answer, this team has had 7 straight losses. At this point they are playing for pride and strides in the right direction. If I were the coaching staff I would be preparing for the future and give Terry the start, with Brian Lewerke out for the season with a broken leg Terry is the obvious choice. He is a dynamic playmaker and gives the defense something else to think about in terms of his legs. Regardless if Tyler O'Connor can't go on Saturday, Damion Terry is the guy fans need to keep their eye on.
What is your prediction for the game?
My final score will be 24-20 in favor of Rutgers.
I wanted to thank McLain for taking the time to give great insight of our opponent this weekend. For more coverage of Michigan State football, visit The Only Colors. To read my answers to McLain’s questions, click here.