Rutgers and Michigan State meet today for the ninth time all-time, with the Spartans having won five of eight meetings, including all three as Big Ten foes. The Scarlet Knights enter this game as 14 point underdogs, not having been favored in a conference game this season. They are 6-2 against the spread in Big Ten games, so that should provide some hope. On senior day, Rutgers will look to pull the upset on national television against a team they almost did that to two seasons ago.
To get more insight on the current state of this week’s opponent, I was fortunate to trade questions with McLain Moberg, who writes for SB Nation’s Michigan State site, The Only Colors. I asked McLain about the keys to the Spartans offense, the continued dominance of their defense, as well as his thoughts on this matchup. Let’s kick things off here.
At 8-3 and 6-2 in the Big Ten, Michigan State has rebounded from a rare losing season last year and has had a pretty good campaign. What were expectations heading into this season and what is the current mood of the fan base?
MM: My personal expectations were around seven or eight wins, including a bowl game. In my mind, last year was an aberration for Coach D and his Spartans. As you said it was a rare losing season under the tutelage of Mark Dantonio. So the fact that he and his team have rebounded so strongly should come as no surprise. The fan base is ecstatic to be back to this point, having the opportunity to reach a total of 10 wins is huge. It's the kind of place Spartan Nation wants to live and has been living for a long time now.
Michigan State has struggled in the passing game with quarterback Brian Lewerke this season , although he has had success running the ball. How much of the issue is on him throwing the ball and what other problems exist for the Spartans through the air?
MM: Brian Lewerke has been the offensive leader that was missing from this team last year. He has made errors throughout the season but that is to be expected since this is his first time as the starting quarterback. His accuracy and deep ball haven't always been his strengths while running the ball clearly has. I'm not going to say throwing the ball on offense is a major issue because Spartan Nation has learned to trust Lewerke to lead MSU to victory. A feat he has proven capable of time and time again, only losing three games in 2017 (all teams are currently in the CFP Top 25).
I feel like L.J. Scott has been in the Spartans backfield for a decade now. It seems like he has had a solid, but unspectacular season. Overall, Michigan State only has the 69th ranked rushing offense per S&P+. What are the strengths of Scott and the rest of the backfield, as well as what issues exist in the run game?
MM: L.J. Scott has had a solid season, carrying the ball 164 times for 731 rushing yards and six touchdowns. It's just like you said though, there isn't anything spectacular about his numbers. Scott is also going to be under achieving compared to last year, especially since he was on the Doak Walker watch list during the pre-season. An award given to the nation's premiere running back.
L.J.'s fumbling issues have gotten him the "Le'Veon with a fumble problem" comparison by some sports analysts out there. Fumbling extends to the entire backfield including Madre London and Gerald Holmes. At one point MSU was tops in the nation for fumbles lost and recovered. If the guys can't protect the ball against Rutgers Saturday it might turn in to a long day.
Michigan State is back to having a dominant defense this season and are currently ranked 6th in the country in S&P+. What has been the key to their success and who are some important names for Rutgers fans to know.
MM: Well other fan bases might tell you the Spartan success has been a product of the weather they seem to keep playing in. MSU fans will tell you they are right back where they want to be. The key to this defense's success has been chemistry. The previous season speculated a lot of drama in the locker room, a rumor I've referenced in the past. This season has felt different. I get that particular feeling every time I see these guys take the field together. There is a level of energy and intensity being passed around from player to player. Almost like they are feeding off of each other.
The names Rutgers fans need to know feature Joe Bachie, Andrew and David Dowell, Justin Layne, and Josiah Scott who was out last week with an injury. If you are a fan of the Scarlet Knights then keeping an eye out for these guys is a must because they will make an impact on the game.
How have special teams play been this season and are there any particular strengths or weaknesses worth noting?
MM: In many games this season Mark Dantonio has been forced into playing the field position battle. When the offense seems incapable of doing anything he calls on Jake Hartbarger to pin the other team deep. For the most part it's worked all season long. Jake has been a phenomenal punter for the Spartans. Michigan State has given up points due to punt / kick off returns so if there was a small weakness worth noting I'd say it's possible Rutgers breaks one off to the house if everything were to go perfectly.
6. What is your prediction for the game?
MM: Right now I think Michigan State is the better football team. Winning on the road is never easy but with this Spartan defense backing their play MSU should be fine. I see them getting out of New Jersey with a 24-10 victory to end the regular season with nine wins.
Thanks to McLain for giving us great insight on Michigan State football ahead of today’s game. Follow him on twitter here and for more on the Spartans, visit The Only Colors. To read my answers to McLain's questions on Rutgers football, click here.