Rutgers football heads to East Lansing on Saturday for the regular season finale against Michigan State (6-5; 4-4), a program who has beaten them by an average score of 41-9 since becoming Big Ten foes in 2014. The Scarlet Knights enter the game with a 1-10 record and are winless in conference play. They are also four touchdown underdogs in this matchup, which seems high considering that the Michigan State offense is ranked only above Rutgers in the Big Ten.
I was able to connect once again with McLain Moberg, who writes for SB Nation’s Michigan State site, The Only Colors. Expectations, offensive struggles, injury concerns, a strong run defense and places to visit if you’re going to the game are some of the topics we discussed. Let’s kick off the Q&A here.
AB: Michigan State had 10+ won seasons in six of the past 8 years under head coach Mark Dantonio, but are having an uncharacteristic 6-5 campaign. How has this team matched up to preseason expectations and what has gone wrong this season?
MM: Honestly, that’s the one question fans should be asking. Why have two out of the last three seasons been so underwhelming? This year, injuries have derailed MSU for the most part. The Spartans tied for the most returning starters in the FBS with 22, but 11 of those same players have missed time due to injury, including nine on offense. Overall, 13 of MSU’s 24 starters have missed time since the preseason rankings came out.
I understand people don’t want Michigan State to use injuries as an excuse and I’m not saying they are. However, at some point fans have to look at who is out at what time. MSU has lost LJ Scott, Felton Davis III, Cody White, Brian Lewerke, Darrell Stewart Jr, and multiple offense lineman.
On the other hand, it’s tough to justify losses to Arizona State and Northwestern. Nevertheless, if there is one guy who can get MSU to eight wins it’s Mark Dantonio. The long-time Spartan coach has compiled a 29-13 record (.690) in November and has won 23 of the last 33 games in the same month.
AB: Looking more recently, Michigan State is just 19-17 in the past three seasons. Despite Dantonio having a hugely successful tenure, between the recent mediocrity and off the field issues in the past year, how would you view his future with the school?
MM: I would say it’s popular for people to judge what Dantonio has been able to accomplish since the year 2016. The 2018 Senior Class has helped the Spartans obtain a 31-19 record since 2015, including three bowl berths (15’ College Football Playoff Semifinal, 2017 Holiday Bowl, 2018 TBA). It’s easy to take the worst season he’s ever had in his coaching career and go from there in terms of success.
In spite of all the off-field issues and everything else going on at Michigan State, his future with the school and team is fine. I don’t believe his job is in jeopardy in the slightest. He is the second-winningest coach in school history with 106 victories, trailing only Hall of Famer Duffy Daugherty (109). Dantonio is also one of just nine active FBS coaches to own at least 100 victories at his current university, while being nominated multiple times for the George Munger College Coach of the Year Award. As long as it’s up to MSU, he’s not going anywhere.
AB: Scoring has been a struggle this season, as MSU ranks second to last in the Big Ten in total offense and points, as well as last in third down conversion rate. Which has been more of an issue, the run game or pass attack and why?
MM: To tell the truth, the entire offense is the problem. There’s a reason Michigan State ranks 113th in total offense (out of 129). They are near dead last in team pass efficiency (123rd). I don’t know how fans can watch this team and expect them to score points. MSU can’t take advantage of teams like Nebraska and Rutgers, who aren’t good defensively, because they simply can’t be productive on that side of the ball (outside of field goals). I’m fairly confident they’ll be kicking more of them against Rutgers.
AB: What is quarterback Brian Lewerke’s status for Saturday’s game and how has backup Rocky Lombardi done replacing him? Who are some other key players on offense that need to step up in this game?
MM: Mark Dantonio hates talking about injuries, he even took away the depth chart altogether the week before the Michigan game. The best I can tell you is it reads Brian Lewerke OR Rocky Lombardi. It wasn’t that long ago, Lewerke told us how his shoulder hurts when he throws. He won’t be back until he’s 100%.
Rocky had a nice game at home against Purdue, but since then he’s been noticeably young. Some of it’s still play calling and some is execution on behalf of the players. I’m looking for the receiving core to step up this weekend, especially after dropping seven passes in key situations last week.
AB: The defense has been strong once again this season, particularly against the run. Who are key players to know for this game from a Rutgers perspective?
MM: Joe Bachie (LB), Andrew Dowell (LB), Mike Panasiuk (DT), Khari Willis (S), and Kenny Willekes (DE) are a few of the names that come to mind.
Bachie, a team captain, is right back at it again this season, ranking second on the Spartans and 15th in the Big Ten with 7.5 tackles per game (82 total; 32 solo and 45 assists). While junior defense end Kenny Willekes, who entered the program as a walk-on linebacker for MSU in 2015, has since emerged as one of the top pass rushers in the nation. He leads the conference in tackles for loss (20.5 for 84 yards) and ranks tied for second in sacks (8.5 for 60 yards), totals which rank among the national leaders.
Additionally, Michigan State ranks tied for 22nd in the FBS with 12 interceptions in 11 games this season. Nine different players have recorded interceptions for the Spartans.
AB: For Rutgers fans visiting East Lansing for the game, can you please give some recommendations of things to do and places to visit around town and campus?
MM: If you are looking for a place to hang, drink some beer, and eat good food then my personal recommendations are always going to be Crunchy’s Bar off of West Grand River Ave and Harrison Road House, which is located on Michigan Ave.
If you are entirely new to East Lansing and have never seen the campus I suggest you check out the Magic Johnson statue and the Spartan Statue - a historical landmark in EL.
AB: What is your prediction for the regular season finale for both teams?
MM: I’ll plug what I essentially wrote on The Only Colors for this one. I don’t think Rutgers is going to score against this stingy MSU defense. They are frustrated, but will continue to succeed against a less than stellar offense. I realize the Scarlet Knights scored 14 total points against Penn State and Michigan - I just don’t see it happening. Even the 2016 team managed to keep Rutgers from scoring. The MSU offense is terrible and will continue to be an issue for the Spartans. That being said, I can’t possibly predict they’ll be kept out of the end zone on Senior Day. MSU 17 Rutgers 0
Thanks to McLain for giving great insight on Michigan State football. You can follow him on twitter here and for complete coverage of the MSU Spartans, check out The Only Colors. To read my answers to McLain’s questions on Rutgers, click here.