The Scarlet Knights are preparing to return to the place where they won the opener of the 2020 season with Greg Schiano back on the sideline.
Rutgers will travel to East Lansing to take on Michigan State this week. After coming into the season as a Top 15 team, the Spartans have fallen off and sit with the same record as the Scarlet Knights. There is plenty to discuss about this program and we were recently joined by Managing Editor of The Only Colors Ryan O’Bleness for a Q&A about the upcoming matchup and all things Michigan State.
OTB: It’s been a big difference between 2021 and 2022 for Michigan State. Aside from the loss of Kenneth Walker III, what has been the biggest reason that the Spartans have struggled at times?
TOC: It’s been a mix of things and hard to pinpoint the biggest issue. Losing Walker and several others from the 2021 team (such as wide receiver Jalen Nailor, several offensive linemen, both starting defensive ends and more) was obviously a big blow, but still Michigan State was expected by many to be a nine-win or 10-win team this season. That obviously isn’t the case.
I hate to use injuries as an excuse, but those really played a big role in the Spartans’ struggles, especially early in the season. In the first game of the season against Western Michigan, Michigan State lost linebacker Darius Snow for the year. Snow, who previously played safety and nickel back, is extremely versatile and was expected to be MSU’s best coverage linebacker. So that was a big blow. Also in the Western Michigan game, the Spartans lost safety Xavier Henderson for an extended period of time. This was arguably the biggest loss for MSU, as Henderson is not only the best safety on the roster, he is also a team leader who orchestrates the entire defense. The Spartans looked lost on defense without Henderson and have played much better with him available since he returned for the Wisconsin game.
At different points in the season, MSU has been without wide receiver Jayden Reed, defensive tackle Jacob Slade, defensive tackle Simeon Barrow, cornerback Marqui Lowery Jr., safety Jaden Mangham, safety Kendell Brooks, defensive lineman Jalen Hunt, defensive lineman Dashaun Mallory, defensive end Jeff Pietrowski, defensive end Khris Bogle and others. All of those players are key starters or contributors, and most (not all) of those injuries have been of the multiple-game variety. So it has most certainly had an impact, especially on defense.
The team is just now starting to get healthy over the past couple of weeks, and the return of Henderson and Slade in particular has been huge for the defense and team overall. Although, Slade suffered another injury against Illinois, and his status against Rutgers is uncertain. Right guard Matt Carrick also got hurt against the Fighting Illini and did not return, while left tackle Jarret Horst did not play against the Illini. In addition, MSU currently has eight players suspended due to suspension following the tunnel incident at Michigan, including star linebacker/defensive end Jacoby Windmon and other starters/contributors. Of course, those kinds of distractions haven’t helped the team either, but Mel Tucker and his staff have handled that in the right way.
In addition, there’s been questionable play calls and in-game management from the coaching staff and lack of execution from the players. The defense has played much better over the past three games and defensive coordinator Scottie Hazelton has made the necessary adjustments. As mentioned, the defense was derailed by injuries early on and really struggled to defend the pass, and Hazelton was under fire from fans. The Spartans seem to be improving there.
Offensively, Michigan State has struggled to generate a push in the running game and quarterback Payton Thorne’s play has been inconsistent. However, the Spartans were able to find success on the ground against Illinois’ top-ranked defense, and Thorne had a strong outing as well. This should give MSU’s offense some confidence moving forward.
So, coming off of an 11-2 campaign with a New Year’s Six victory in 2021, obviously the 2022 squad is going to fall well short of preseason expectations. There has been a lot that has gone wrong for this team, but there is still an opportunity to salvage the season, finish strong and make a bowl game.
OTB: Has there been any disgruntled feelings surrounding Mel Tucker, especially after the contract extension? Are fans still onboard with their head coach?
TOC: While the majority of Michigan State fans have been incredibly disappointed with the Spartans’ performance this season, most fans still recognize this is a rebuilding process (despite the success of 2021) and support Mel Tucker and his vision. However, there have certainly been people on social media, message boards and elsewhere who have questioned Tucker’s contract, his coordinators, his late-game management, etc. A very small (and quite frankly wrong) cohort of fans have even said they would like to move on from Tucker. But overall, most fans are still in complete support of Tucker.
While the on-the-field results have been subpar this season, Tucker’s vision and plan for the future remain strong. While there has been some recent decommitments, Tucker and his staff are on track to bring a highly-touted 2023 recruiting class. He also has had a lot of success finding players in the transfer portal and has been slowly rebuilding the mostly barren roster he took over from Mark Dantonio in 2020. He has created a distinct culture in East Lansing and has big plans for the future.
The way Tucker and the Michigan State decision-makers are handling the tunnel incident is exactly the way they should have: Suspend the players involved and then step out of the way, let the authorities investigate, wait for the facts to come out and then reassess the situation from there. Given the incident, certain fan bases will bash Tucker and his program, but the culture remains strong — evidenced by the resilience the Spartans showed against Illinois. Following the embarrassing defeat to Michigan and even more embarrassing tunnel situation, and down eight players to suspension, it would have been easy for Michigan State to fold against the No.16-ranked team in the nation. Instead, the Spartans got a road upset over a team boasting the nation’s No. 1 defense
Also, it’s important to remember that Tucker’s massive 10-year, $95 million contract extension is mostly privately-funded, too, so the money is not coming directly out of the athletic department’s bank account. Still, when you are getting paid $9.5 million a year, your team is expected to perform better than it has. It will be a while yet before Michigan State is competing for championships again, but Tucker is the right person to lead the program now and in the future.
OTB: Michigan State held Illinois in check last week and made some fourth down stops. What has been the strengths defensively?
TOC: Well — I honestly still think Michigan State is figuring out its identity defensively. The most important thing is that the unit has gotten healthier and has played much better in this past three-game stretch. Earlier in the year, the defense also played a strong second half against Maryland, holding the Terrapins to just six points in the final two quarters.
Statistically, MSU ranks poorly across the board in the FBS on defense: 105th in passing yards allowed per game (259.8), 95th in rushing yards allowed (166.9) and tied for 105th for total yards allowed per game (426.7). The Spartans are a little bit more respectable in scoring defense, ranking 68th at 26.0 points per game. MSU also ranks a lot more favorably defensively in ESPN’s SP+ rankings (54th).
In the past three games (versus Wisconsin, at Michigan and at Illinois), however, Michigan State has allowed just 389 yards per game and 24 points per game.
Quite honestly, the strength of Michigan State has actually been its ability to force fumbles. MSU has forced 17 fumbles this season (which is tied for the ninth-most in FBS, per TeamRankings.com), and has recovered 10 of those, which put the Spartans in the top-10 for recoveries as well. Linebacker/defensive end Jacoby Windmon, who remains suspended as of now, leads the nation with six forced fumbles, while safety Kendell Brooks is tied for second in the FBS with three fumbles forced.
Michigan State has also been incredibly stout at the goal line, making several goal-line stands this season.
OTB: Rutgers has been good against the run this season. Of course, the Spartans have some playmakers on the outside. Do you imagine Michigan State leaning on the passing attack this weekend?
TOC: Rutgers has been fairly strong against the run, allowing 127.4 yards per game, and ranking in the top-45 nationally. However, looking at the passing yards allowed numbers, Rutgers is perhaps even stronger here — allowing just 183.1 yards through the air per game (22nd nationally). In fact, Rutgers surprisingly held quarterback C.J. Stroud and Ohio State to 161 total passing yards (Kyle McCord had seven yards), but perhaps that was more due to the Buckeyes leaning on the rushing attack (252 rushing yards).
With that said, I do think Michigan State has a good opportunity to win some one-on-one matchups on the outside with wide receivers Keon Coleman and Jayden Reed. Both are excellent playmakers, and Coleman can out-athlete just about anybody in jump ball situations. Payton Thorne is going to need to deliver the ball accurately against a stout defense and avoid turnovers. I do expect offensive coordinator Jay Johnson to dial up some deep shots and intermediate passes in the middle of the field, but first, as per usual (even when it hasn’t been successful), the Spartans will look to establish the run before opening up the play-action passing game.
If Michigan State is going to win this game, the Spartans are going to need to find success and consistency in the passing game.
OTB: What are the weaknesses, on either side of the ball, that Rutgers could look to exploit?
TOC: I’ve talked about a lot of this already, but offensively, there hasn’t been enough success in the ground game. Michigan State’s offensive line needs to create a better push, and the running backs need to hit the holes when they are actually there and display better vision. In the passing game, Thorne needs to play more consistently and limit the turnovers. MSU will hope to build off of its impressive performance against a really tough Illinois defense.
Defensively, the pass coverage still needs to play better, but it is getting there and I don’t see Rutgers being able to take advantage of MSU’s secondary, more on that below. The Spartans also have only recorded two interceptions all season, which is embarrassingly low, so perhaps Gavin Wimsatt will have better luck with sustaining drives and not giving the ball away.
OTB: What would you say is the biggest matchup that can swing this game in either direction? Whether it is one player or an entire unit.
TOC: The thing that stands out to me about Rutgers is the poor quarterback play. I assume Gavin Wimsatt will start this game. He’s completed just about 43.5 percent of his passes this season, and has thrown only two touchdowns compared to six interceptions. As a whole, Rutgers’ quarterbacks (not including Johnny Langan) have completed just 51.2 percent of passes for a mere seven touchdowns compared to 13 interceptions.
Meanwhile, as I’ve mentioned earlier, Michigan State has had issues stopping the pass this season. Like I said above, currently, Michigan State ranks 105th in the nation in pass defense (259.8 yards allowed per game). But in three games since Henderson returned to the defensive backfield (to recap: versus Wisconsin, at Michigan and at Illinois), the Spartans have allowed an average of just 195.3 passing yards per game in that span. Some may say that is because those are three run-heavy teams, which is true, but it’s more about getting healthy, defensive coordinator Scottie Hazelton making the right adjustments and the players executing better.
So the biggest matchup to me is Wimsatt (or whoever starts at quarterback) versus the Michigan State secondary. The Spartans cannot afford to allow an underperforming quarterback to pick the defensive backs apart as so many signal-callers have done over the past two seasons. I like MSU in this particular matchup, though.
OTB: Finally, what is your score prediction? Who wins the game and why?
TOC: Michigan State is the more talented team and should win this game, but I expect a gritty performance from Rutgers on the road, especially defensively. I think the Scarlet Knights will be able to limit the amount of points the Spartans score, but given how putrid Rutgers is offensively (ranking 125th out of 131 teams in total offense and 114th in scoring offense), all the Spartans likely need to do is to get to around 21 points to win in my opinion.
With that said, I’ve mentioned the struggles the defense has had, and it’s possible that Rutgers finds it offensive footing versus Michigan State. However, like I said, the MSU defense has played much better in the past few games, so I expect that trend to continue. The Scarlet Knights just don’t have a reliable enough quarterback situation to keep up with the Spartans.
Michigan State 24, Rutgers 10