The No. 11 and undefeated Michigan State Spartans will visit SHI Stadium to take on Rutgers this Saturday in a pivotal Big Ten East matchup for both teams. After last season’s surprising victory for the Scarlet Knights, Mel Tucker’s team is looking to return the favor on the road this weekend.
In an effort to find out more about this weekend’s opponent, I was fortunate to connect with Ryan O’Bleness, who is the managing editor for SB Nation’s Michigan State site The Only Colors. We discussed increased expectations for MSU, the new additions that have made an impact, the dynamic playmakers on offense, Mel Tucker’s use of “Keep Chopping” and much more. Let’s kick things off here.
AB: What were expectations for this team coming into the season and have they changed now that Michigan State has started the season 5-0?
RO: To be honest, nobody knew quite what to expect from this Michigan State team going into the 2021 season. The Spartans were coming off of a 2-5 season in the COVID-shortened 2020 campaign, and Mel Tucker and his coaching staff transformed the MSU roster in the offseason to better fit their vision and style. The Spartans added around 20 new transfers — many of whom are scholarship players who are now playing big roles for the team in 2021 — while 27 players transferred out of the program, and a few others graduated or pursued the NFL.
To answer your question, though, yes, expectations have certainly changed for Michigan State, at least from the fans’ perspective — I think the coaches, players and staff expected this kind of result and aren’t satisfied yet. The majority of fans, though, would have just been happy with bowl eligibility, and now anything less than eight or nine wins would feel like a disappointment, with a real possibility of double-digits wins by the time it is all said and done.
AB: Michigan State’s offense has been one of the better one’s in the Big Ten so far this season with third in scoring and fourth in total yards. What impact has QB Payton Thorne made as the full-time starter and how essential is getting Kenneth Walker and Jayden Reed going for the offense to have success?
RO: There was a lot of debate throughout the offseason about who should start at quarterback between Payton Thorne, a redshirt sophomore, and Anthony Russo, a graduate transfer from Temple. It wasn’t publicly announced until minutes before the opening game kickoff at Northwestern that Thonre won the job, and so far, it’s been easy to see why Thorne is the right person to lead the Michigan State offense. First of all, Thorne makes good decisions and does not turn the ball over often, as he has just one interception on the season compared to 11 interceptions (and zero fumbles). He is averaging 247.2 yards per game, which ranks fourth in the Big Ten, and is second in the conference in passing efficiency with a rating of 169.3. Thorne’s mobility is an underrated part of his game, and he is smart and shows toughness and leadership. While he may not have the strongest arm, he is clearly the right guy to guide a Michigan State offense full of dynamic playmakers.
As for Walker, expect the offense to flow through him. He leads the nation in rushing yards (680 yards) and rushing yards per game with (136 rushing yards per game). After transferring over from Wake Forest in the offseason, Walker has been a revelation in the running game for the Spartans — a team that truly struggled on the ground last season and the couple seasons before it as well. His teammates and coaches call him “The Eraser” because he can make tacklers miss, even when offensive linemen miss a block, and he creates plays for himself with outstanding cutting ability and vision.
Reed is a home run threat every time he touches the ball, whether that be in the receiving game, returning kickoffs or punts, or even rushing the football. He leads the FBS in all purpose yards with 883 total yards and 176.6 yards per game average. Reed has great speed and moves, and like Walker, Reed is a humble, hard-working player. It’s been great to see him put it all together.
So Thorne, Walker and Reed are obviously the main playmakers, and if Rutgers can neutralize them, then the Scarlet Knights have a good shot to get a win. With that said, Jalen Nailor, Tre Mosley, Connor Heyward and Tyler Hunt can also make plays for the Spartans.
AB: MSU only has the 11th best third down conversion rate in the Big Ten. Is this a concern and how reliant does that make them on needing to make big plays for the offense to score 30+ points a game.
RO: It obviously hasn’t been a huge strength thus far, but those third down statistics may be skewed a little bit by one game at this point in the season. Michigan State severely struggled in that regard against the Nebraska Cornhuskers in Week Four, converting just one third down on 10 attempts (10 percent). But if you throw out that Nebraska game, the Spartans have converted 44.4 percent of third down attempts in the other four games combined, which would put them in the top-three in the Big Ten. So that poor performance against the Cornhuskers is severely dragging down MSU’s percentage to the current 38.2 percent mark you see listed.
Big plays have certainly been a part of Michigan State’s success this season — from Kenneth Walker’s 75-yard touchdown run on the opening play of the season, to Jayden Reed’s 85-yard touchdown catch or 62-yard and 88-yard punt return touchdowns, or Jalen Nailor’s 43-yard catch-and-run against Western Kentucky. However, outside of the Nebraska game, I have not personally been concerned about the third down success rate, as Michigan State has converted at a respectable clip (at least 40 percent) in each of those other games.
AB: Defensively the Spartans are averaging close to 4 sacks per game and allow just over 20 points a game. However, they have allowed the most first downs by far in the Big Ten and opponents are converting 46% of third and fourth down attempts combined. Is there concern this defense will struggle more with only Big Ten competition left on the schedule?
RO: Well, it’s because Michigan State seems to play a “bend-but-don’t break” style of defense. Michigan State’s defensive scheme isn’t necessarily worried about giving up yardage, and although the Spartans obviously want to limit explosive plays as much as possible, what’s more important to MSU is actually keeping teams out of the end zone. The Spartans have done just that, allowing 20.6 points per game, which ranks 39th in the nation. Check out this postgame quote from Tucker regarding getting stops in the red zone against a highly-potent Western Kentucky offense:
“It’s critical (to get stops in the red zone) because oftentimes we play teams like (Western Kentucky), you know they can move the ball and put stress on your defense, but it’s not about yards, it’s about points,” Tucker said. “Yards are one thing, but points are something else. To be able to go and hold them to some field goal attempts in the red zone was big for us because you end up trading field goals for touchdowns. Our offense was making plays, and special teams, and we were able to open up a lead, and that’s huge.”
Obviously, the MSU defense has some tightening up to do, particularly in the secondary, after giving up 488 passing yards to WKU, but that was somewhat expected going into the game because that is what the Hilltoppers do to every team. In the Big Ten, outside of maybe Ohio State, I don’t think the Spartans will see another team that is going to throw the football 60-plus times per game with an incredibly accurate quarterback like Bailey Zappe throwing downfield every play. WIth all of that said, there are certainly some things to clean up going into the Big Ten slate, as there isn’t an easy game remaining on Michigan State’s schedule, and the Big Ten East may be the toughest division in the country.
AB: MSU has been really strong in the return game on special teams with Reed having run back two punts for touchdowns already this season. How has special teams play been in general and what has led to Reed’s improved production this season in the return game?
RO: Special teams play has been much-improved, and a huge part of Michigan State’s success this season. Reed’s 62-yard punt return touchdown against Nebraska tied the game late, and eventually forced overtime where the Spartans were able to get the win. His 88-yard punt return touchdown on his first touch of the game against Western Kentucky set the tone for a game that Michigan State was mostly able to dominate. Most teams wouldn’t risk putting a star wide receiver as returner because of the extreme injury risk, but Tucker knows the importance of special teams and flipping field position, as Reed is currently averaging about 30.7 yards per kick return and 39.6 yards per punt return. In fact, Jalen Nailor, the other starting outside receiver, is the other primary returner, and on Reed’s punt return touchdown against Nebraska, the Spartans fooled the Cornhuskers by having both Reed and Nailor back deep while Nailor pretended to field the punt and the MSU blockers ran toward Nailor, as Reed then took the punt with nothing but green grass in front of him and sprinted into the end zone. So, that scheme, along with Reed’s big-play ability, made that play happen. The one against Western Kentucky was more so the WKU punter outkicking his coverage, and Reed outrunning everybody.
Michigan State puts an emphasis on special teams, and Tucker says it’s ingrained in the team’s culture and is one-third of the game, not an “afterthought.” So, the Spartans are going to put their best playmakers back there to field the kicks and punts. The players have bought into that line of thinking and that is likely the reason that MSU is seeing much more success in the return game this season, after being pretty dormant in that category for the last several seasons.
AB: Mel Tucker uses several mantras but has seemingly gone all in on “Keep Chopping” which appears to be a direct hit at Rutgers. Is there any real beef coming from the MSU side and the fan base? Regardless of the reason, does this mean a rivalry between the two programs is brewing?
RO: I think Tucker picked up the “Keep Chopping” phrase in other places, as it has been documented that he and his staff used it at Colorado and Greg Schiano picked up the mantra from Dr. Kevin Elko, who was also around the Alabama staff when Tucker was Nick Saban’s defensive backs coach/associate head coach in 2015. Also, I am a huge Jacksonville Jaguars fan (random, I know), and Tucker coached there under then head coach Jack Del Rio from 2009-2011 (before taking over as interim coach after Del Rio was fired in 2011) and Del Rio used to say “Keep chopping wood” in previous seasons before Tucker arrived — although that ended in disaster when punter Chris Hanson cut his leg with an axe after Del Rio placed a tree stump and an axe in the middle of the locker room to illustrate the mantra, so I’m not sure the phrase was actually in use by the time Tucker was on staff.
I think at this point, Tucker has to be aware that it is Rutgers’ mantra, but I’m not sure if he simply doesn’t care or is just trolling Schiano at this point. With that said, I recall last year Tucker saying that he and Schiano are good friends and he has a lot of respect for Schiano, so if he is doing it to irk Schiano, I think it’s all in good fun with his buddy. With that said, and while Tucker likes to use many different phrases and sayings, “Keep Chopping” has really seemed to resonate with Michigan State’s players, and I think he is more worried about that than hurting the feelings of those within the Rutgers program/Rutgers fans. I truly don’t believe he means any harm with it, but I can see why Rutgers fans would have an issue with it.
I don’t think Michigan State fans look at Rutgers as a rival just yet, and still expect to win more often than not against the Scarlet Knights, but with Rutgers getting more competitive, the mantra controversy, Tucker targeting New Jersey as a recruiting pipeline and last year’s seven turnover embarrassment, there is certainly some steam being built toward a mini rivalry. I’ve already seen MSU fans jawing with Rutgers fans this week on Twitter, so something could certainly be brewing here, and Rutgers is no longer the laughingstock of the Big Ten, so it will be interesting to see how things progress.
AB: What is your prediction for the game?
RO: I’m not going to lie, this game worries me on the road, and I still have nightmares about the seven-turnover debacle in the 2020 season opener. Michigan State has dominated this series since Rutgers joined the Big Ten, but this certainly isn’t the Rutgers teams of the past, and the Scarlet Knights have a tough defense. However, a seven-turnover game isn’t going to happen this year, as the Spartans are much better at protecting the football this season (plus-five turnover margin on the year, just like Rutgers). Offensively, I don’t think Rutgers (eighth in the Big Ten at 29.8 points per game) has what it takes to hang with the high-scoring Michigan State offense (third in the Big Ten at 37.8 points per game). I think the Scarlet Knights hang tough for three-plus quarters before the Spartans pull away in the mid to late fourth quarter. Michigan State 34, Rutgers 24
Thanks to Ryan for providing great insight on the current state of Michigan State football ahead of Saturday’s matchup with Rutgers. You can follow him on Twitter here and for complete coverage of MSU Athletics, visit The Only Colors. To read my answers to Ryan’s questions on Rutgers football, click here.