No. 11 Michigan State comes to town this Saturday completing the trifecta of Rutgers most difficult stretch of the 2021 season. Last Saturday, Michigan State scored a season-high in points, cruising past Western Kentucky 48-31. The Spartans are 5-0 so any comparisons to the 2020 Spartans in last year’s COVID shortened season can be thrown out the window.
However, watching them in the Western Kentucky game, what immediately struck me was that although Michigan State and Ohio State are only separated by four slots in the latest AP Top Twenty Poll, the chasm between the Buckeyes and Spartans is far deeper. Ohio State is the cream of the Big Ten and Rutgers did everything wrong, while the Buckeyes did everything right. This was a perfect storm that hit SHI Stadium that says much more about how good Ohio State is than how bad Rutgers is.
This coming Saturday brings a new day and with it, a realistic opportunity for a Scarlet Knights victory. Michigan State is a completely different team than the one the Scarlet Knights beat last season but then again, so are the Scarlet Knights.
Taking a deeper dive into the Spartans season to date, while Michigan State started the season with an impressive 38-17 over Miami who at the time was ranked 24th, the subsequent play of the Hurricanes has taken a lot of luster off that victory. The Spartans also had to struggle before edging out Nebraska in overtime, although the Cornhuskers play against Oklahoma leads one to believe that Nebraska is much better than advertised. Last week’s 48-31 victory over Western Kentucky revealed that Michigan State is vulnerable on defense, just how vulnerable remains to be seen.
Michigan State is indeed a different team than it was last season. Mel Tucker revamped the roster, which included bringing in Wake Forest running back transfer Kenneth Walker, who leads the Big Ten with 136 rushing yards per game. The Spartans also have three stellar offensive playmakers in receivers Jayden Reed (20 catches, 463 yards, five TD’s), Jalen Nailor (18 catches, 269 yards, three TD’s) and Tre Mosley (16 catches, 250 yards, 0 TD’s).
Rutgers fans looking to see the 2020 Spartans are in for a surprise on Saturday as the Michigan State offense is light years ahead of last season, most notably due to the play of Walker and receiver / return man Jayden Reed. Watching Michigan State against Western Kentucky last week, quarterback Payton Thorne looked a lot like Noah Vedral taking what the defense gave him as well as exercising a run option for a touchdown. Thorne threw for 327 yards against Western Kentucky after a very pedestrian performance the week before against Nebraska. The red-shirt sophomore has been inconsistent and if the Scarlet Knights can get to Thorne, the game could be interesting. Reed is like Aron Cruikshank as a receiver/returner as well. Where the similarities end is along the offensive line where Michigan State is much healthier and playing cohesively as a unit.
The Michigan State defense can best be described as a bend-don’t-break unit that does just enough to allow the Spartan’s dynamic offense to win games. In watching tape of Michigan States season to date, what stands out is you can pass on their secondary, as Western Kentucky, Miami and Nebraska all showed that. If the Scarlet Knights offensive line can hold up and the defense plays like it did against Michigan, this could make for an interesting game.