As Rutgers kicked off to Michigan State at noon on Saturday, a three & out Spartan opening drive seemed to signal what we had all hoped. Rutgers came to play today, and we might just be on the road to our first conference win of the season. However, with struggles on both sides of the ball, the game unfortunately would go downhill from there pretty quickly. MSU would go on to move the ball easily for the rest of the game, with 440 total yards of total offense to Rutgers' 149. That's right, folks. MSU had three times the yardage, and more than double the number of first downs (20 v. 8) as Rutgers. With those types of stats, its not hard to wonder why Michigan State emerged victorious. Michigan State has officially won their first conference game of the season, and Rutgers continues to be dead last in the Big Ten East.
While the offense certainly stalled as well, the defense had their worst game since playing #3 ranked Michigan early in October. As fans, I think we were heartened by the defense's performance, aside from spotty pass defense in last week's matchup against Indiana. The Scarlet Knights defense held the Hoosiers to just 3.3 yards per rush attempt, and just 67 rushing yards after the first quarter. A season-high 13 tackles for loss were recorded, the most since Rutgers 2012 matchup against Louisville. While mistakes were made, it seemed like under the coaching of defensive minds Chris Ash and Jay Niemann, we were steadily improving on that side of the ball. Not so fast, Rutgers fans. As we know, Rutgers has struggled with consistency this season, and that same defense recorded just one tackle for a loss against MSU, made by true freshman Damon Hayes. The defense looked sloppy, sluggish, and completely out of their league.
Earlier in the season, Ash and defensive coordinator Jay Niemann mentioned they would be working on rugby-style tackling to aid with all the broken tackles. While it often seemed that defenders were nowhere near their intended target, I still saw broken and high tackles from the Rutgers defense. At times, it took three lineman to take down an opposing running back. There also seemed to be no pass rush, allowing 164 passing yards from three different MSU quarterbacks. The secondary is still struggling to break up any passes, which contributed to two passing touchdowns to Josiah Price and Trishton Jackson in the first quarter. That coupled with the pick 6 by Demetrious Cox, and we were down 21-0 with more that 45 minutes still left to play.
Rutgers has continued to struggle with sluggish first quarter play, which has forced them to bridge large deficits. Against Big Ten competition, these deficits are often unforgeable. It is something they will need to improve on if they have any chance of being competitive in this conference.
As we know, MSU would go on to score 49 unanswered points to clinch their first conference win of the season. While it seemed that the Spartans finally found last season's groove, Rutgers could not stop the big plays that have plagued them all season. Spartans running backs LJ Scott and Gerald Holmes would have runs of 22 and 25 yards long and the team averaged 5.5 yards per carry on the day, setting the Spartans up for 7 touchdowns against the Scarlet Knights. That's right, forget about the long plays for a second, we never even forced a field goal. MSU had free reign of the grass field.
It's disheartening to see this type of performance from our beloved Knights, but I am not one to point figures at individual players. While I am wondering what Jay Niemman worked on with his players in practice this week, what I saw today was a team whose losing record finally caught up with them. Let us not forget that despite our record, this is a team that has shown tremendous heart and determination this season. They have continued to dig themselves out of holes, and fight until the bitter end.
Yesterday, it seemed that fight had finally been beaten out of them. Facing the roaring crowd at Spartan Stadium was a team without its spirit. There was no spark in their play, and the big time stadium crowd seemed to have gotten into their heads. Coach Ash and his staff will have their work cut out for them building up this team's morale for the remaining two games. While I was optimistic going into this game, it seems we may be looking at a 2-10 record for the season. I hope we will all continue to support this team as they face #10 Penn State at home next week, because this team needs all the positive energy they can get.