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Five Takeaways from Rutgers’ loss to No. 11 Michigan State

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The Scarlet Knights lost for multiple reasons and there is a lot to dissect.

NCAA Football: Michigan State at Rutgers Vincent Carchietta-USA TODAY Sports

Rutgers lost to No. 11 Michigan State on Saturday 31-13 in what was a disappointing day all around. Here are five takeaways from Saturday’s performance that dropped the Scarlet Knights to 3-3 overall and 0-3 in Big Ten play.

Playmakers and lack there of was a major difference

The result of this game in a lot of respects came down to two players. Jalen Nailor and Kenneth Walker. Michigan State had them and Rutgers didn’t have any answer for them. Nailor had three touchdowns of over 60 yards each and 221 receiving yards total. Walker had a 94 yard run for a score that effectively ended the game in the third quarter. He finished with 233 yards rushing on 8.0 yards per carry. The inability of the Rutgers defense to stop the big play was the main reason that the game ended in defeat. The pass defense was abysmal and Michigan State gained 588 of total yards in the game.

On the flip side, the absence of Bo Melton was a huge factor with the Rutgers offense. He is the best playmaker on offense and was sorely missed. Aron Cruickshank did his best to step up and although he did score a touchdown, he exited the second half after suffering a shoulder injury a week after Melton did as well. Shameen Jones did finish with 7 catches for 84 yards, but he had some key drops as well. Jovani Haskins was finally involved again and had a couple big catches.

The run game wasn’t effective enough with Isaih Pacheco and Aaron Young, as they averaged just over 4 yards a carry. The longest run of the game was the 33 yarder by Vedral to set up that first touchdown but RU had just one other run for double digit yardage on the day.

At the end of the day, if the Scarlet Knights are going to win Big Ten games, let alone against ranked opponents, the offense has to produce multiple big plays and that has been non-existent this season so far. Which leads to the next big takeaway.

Red zone offense struggled

Rutgers had three trips into the red zone in the first half and only scored a touchdown once. They had a real chance to build momentum but failed to keep it going. They also had an opportunity late in the game but turned it over on downs after starting first and ten from the 11 yard line. The next drive RU was right on the edge of the red zone at the MSU 24 but Vedral fumbled it away on first down.

The Scarlet Knights ultimately lost the game because they couldn’t match the big plays of Michigan State. A lack of execution in the red zone was even more of a factor because of the Scarlet Knights inability to produce big plays of their own.

The first drive of the game was set up by a gutsy 33 yard run by Noah Vedral. Offensive coordinator Sean Gleeson then brought in Johnny Langan on first and goal from the four yard line. It was probably the best call of the game, as Rutgers caught the Michigan State defense off guard by having Langan throw instead of running it. He found Aron Cruikshank for a 4 yard touchdown. However, the two following trips in the second quarter were a big reason why the Scarlet Knights were unable to seriously challenge the Spartans in this game.

It wasn’t a complete disaster as they kicked field goals on the second and third attempts in the red zone, but it wasn’t good enough to beat a ranked team. First and goal from the 7 yard line on the second drive into the red zone resulted in two incompletions from Vedral and a 1 yard loss on a carry by Kyle Monangai. The third red zone opportunity was a gift from the defense after Tyreem Powell recovered a fumble on the Michigan State 13 yard line. Another incompletion following 2 carries for just 2 yards led to another short field goal by Valentino Ambrosio.

In the fourth quarter for the fourth and final trip into the red zone, RU rushed for seven yards before Vedral fumbled but it was recovered by Cedric Paillant. However, they waited to through it until fourth down and Vedral’s pass to Shameen Jones was incomplete.

Rutgers isn’t going to win a Big Ten game without good red zone execution because they lack the ability for big plays on offense. They were unable to win one on one battles in the red zone and made some conservative play calls. The Scarlet Knights weren’t able to punch it in because of it. Failing to score touchdowns from close range is why were unable to keep up and they have to get better in this area. 13 points on four red zone trips just isn’t going to cut it against Big Ten competition.

Six holding penalties a killer

Rutgers came into Saturday with the fewest penalties per game in the country and they deserve credit for that. However, they committed six holding penalties in the loss to Michigan State and seven overall. For an offense that couldn’t make big plays and couldn’t close in the red zone, they also couldn’t avoid shootings themselves in the foot with the holding calls.

Four of them came in the second half, which is not a coincidence that RU didn’t score after halftime. It’s absolutely crushing to an offense without its best player in Bo Melton that was struggling to move the chains.

Four came against three different offensive lineman, one against a tight end and one from a receiver. It was a team issue that will sink any chance that Rutgers has of beating any Big Ten team on any given Saturday. The offensive line also allowed 4 sacks and the Scarlet Knights rushed for only 111 yards for 3.1 yards per carry. All in all, it was a poor performance for the offensive line and not the way they need to play for Rutgers to be able to win.

Injuries could derail season

When asked about the status of Cruickshank’s injury after the game, Schiano said “He has a shoulder. I’m not sure how bad it is yet. We’ll know that tomorrow. But it was bad enough that he couldn’t play anymore.”

Quarterback Noah Vedral didn’t finish the game either, leaving near the end after appearing to suffer an injury. Schiano said in the postgame, “Right now we’re figuring it out. He was injured. With time it felt better. We asked him to throw. I didn’t see any of this. I was coaching. And we looked at it and Sean just didn’t feel like he was sharp enough to put back in the game, so….We’ll see how that is tomorrow.”

In addition, Christian Izien, who made several big plays on defense and special teams in the game, also left the game in the second half with an apparent leg injury. No word on his status either.

These are three key players who Rutgers cannot afford to lose for any period of time. They are already down Bo Melton due to injury and no timetable for return has been discussed. He was in street clothes and his arm was in a sling today. Left tackle Raiqwon O’Neal was dressed but didn’t play after leaving last week’s game with an injury. Starting guard Reggie Sutton has been out for the year with an injury since week four.

On top of the injuries, the suspensions of Max Melton and Chris Long continue to leave the secondary depth thinner than expected.

My biggest concern coming into the season with the outlook for this team was the lack of depth and experience beyond the two deep. Rutgers is not the same team if multiple frontline starters are out. It’s a clear sign of how far this program has to go in terms of raising the talent level and building quality depth up and down the roster.

While three losses in a row to top ranked teams is not the end of the world or even surprising, the impact could still be felt moving forward. The physical toll it ultimately takes on the team depends on the severity of injuries suffered. The mental toll of losing the way they have and being able to bounce back from mistakes is paramount to having success the rest of the season.

Rutgers has Northwestern on the road next week, followed by a bye and then a road game at Illinois. How this team responds and performs over the next three weeks will determine how much progress can and will actually occur this season.

A poor showing from fans hurts in multiple ways

It was the first homecoming weekend in two years so it’s understandable if people were focused on catching up on campus and at the tailgates. The noon start time didn’t do anyone any favors. I also have been hesitant to offer any criticism because I do think COVID-19 is still a factor with low season ticket sales and turnout week to week. All that being said, the stadium was lightly populated right before kickoff and it was embarrassing. The Rutgers media contingent took notice because it was blatantly bad.

And to make matters worse, a Michigan State fan tweeted at us during the game. While their characterization of the fan base obviously isn’t accurate, they weren’t really wrong to go there based on how many empty seats there were.

This was an undefeated opponent ranked No. 11 in the country and Rutgers had beaten them last season, so there was a legitimate chance it could happen again. This team plays hard and despite last week’s poor performance against Ohio State, they deserved a similar environment as there was against the Buckeyes. The fan base didn’t show up the way they should have for this game. The official attendance was 41,117 but the crowd never felt that strong in numbers.

It hurt the team by not creating a hostile environment and it hurts perception across the Big Ten with fan bases and critics that question whether Rutgers belongs. It doesn’t help with recruiting either.

I’m not saying a packed house would have changed the outcome or am I blaming people individually. There are responsibilities in life that keep people away on game day. Many fans don’t live in this area. Life is not as it was before the pandemic and more people in the northeast tend to have modified their behavior because of it compared to other parts of the country. It’s understandable.

If SHI Stadium wasn’t as close to packed as it was last weekend, I wouldn’t be pointing it out as much, but it was. I do think as a whole we have an issue as a fan base in getting our hopes up by placing too much emphasis on the positives when they occur and then putting too much focus on the negatives too. The fan base needs to stay more level, be patient (I’m ducking in 3….2….1) and turn out for this team. The Ash era damaged the psyche of the fan base no doubt, but it’s going to take time and while Schiano and the staff have made progress, this team isn’t ready to consistently win yet.

The next home game isn’t until November 6 against Wisconsin. No matter how Rutgers does against Northwestern and Illinois, I hope this team come home to a better crowd than this game.