Michigan State’s losing streak has reached seven games after a 31-27 defeat at Illinois last Saturday. The Spartans outgained Illinois by 186 yards, had twice as many first downs as the Illini, and held a 23-minute advantage in time of possession. There were so many reasons why Michigan State should have won that game, but so many more why it didn’t.
Games against Big Ten East contenders Ohio State and Penn State to end the season loom, but up first is Saturday’s battle to get out of the Big Ten basement against Rutgers. The Spartans and Scarlet Knights have identical records of 2-7 overall and 0-6 in the conference. But their seasons — and expectations heading into them — certainly are not identical.
It’s not a surprise that Rutgers is in this situation. It’s why former Ohio State assistant Chris Ash was hired in the offseason. Michigan State hasn’t experienced this rough of a season since 1982 and this game appears to be its best chance to feel victory before season’s end.
Kickoff is scheduled for noon ET on the Big Ten Network.
Here are five storylines to watch:
1. Can Michigan State overcome the disappointment of losing at Illinois?
The Spartans went to Illinois confident they would finally end the long losing streak last Saturday but it was the Illini who made the critical plays at the critical moments for a 31-27 win. Michigan State took a lot of physical lumps in the game but the psychological scar of the loss is what needs to be overcome most. Illinois and Rutgers, along with Purdue, were expected to be at the bottom of the Big Ten. Michigan State wasn’t.
How much has the mental state of this team been shaken? Effort hasn’t been a problem but consistent performance and execution have. That points to a lack of confidence, particularly in the fourth quarter of games. If this game is close in the final 15 minutes, will Michigan State believe it can win?
2. Will the Spartans ground game bounce back?
LJ Scott was looking for a third straight 100-yard game but was held to 50 yards on 14 carries and was benched after a fumble in the third quarter. Madre London replaced him first before Gerald Holmes entered the game. London finished with 2 carries and minus-1 yard; Holmes provided 78 yards rushing and 1 touchdown.
Rutgers is last in the Big Ten in rush defense, allowing nearly 250 yards per game. That fits right into what Michigan State wants to do offensively but the Spartans offensive line is banged up and struggling. LT Kodi Kieler didn’t play against Illinois. RG Brian Allen and reserve OT David Beedle left the game with injuries. RTs Miguel Machado and Thiyo Lukusa had issues with penalties and blocking Illinois DEs Carroll Phillips and Dawuane Smoot.
3. Can Michigan State finally solve its problems against the spread offense?
Notre Dame, Indiana, Northwestern and Maryland used the spread formation to great success against Michigan State this season, each gaining more than 400 yards.
Rutgers is in its first season using the spread and has gained at least 350 yards in four of its six Big Ten games. The Scarlet Knights have had to use four different quarterbacks, the latest being redshirt freshman Giovanni Rescigno. The Spartans couldn’t contain Illinois’ third-string redshirt freshman Jeff George Jr. last week in his third career start. Rescigno will be making his third career start this Saturday. He’s completed 55.4 percent of his passes for 598 yards, 5 touchdowns and 3 interceptions.
4. If Tyler O’Connor again starts at quarterback, does Damion Terry get any real playing time?
O’Connor left the game against Illinois in the fourth quarter after taking a hard hit on a successful quarterback sneak on a fourth and 1. Terry entered the game and finished that drive with a field goal. He later threw a touchdown pass to give Michigan State the lead with 2:52 left to play and nearly completed a last-second comeback.
Indications are that O’Connor is OK to practice this week and should be available to play. If he starts, does Terry get any meaningful snaps? Did he do enough against Illinois to earn more playing time?
5. Can the Spartans turn the red zone green?
Whoever is at quarterback needs better production inside the 20-yard line. Michigan State is 10th in the Big Ten in red-zone scoring, converting just 23 of 31 (74.2 percent) of its chances into points. Only 18 of those scores have been touchdowns. The Spartans have had 13 red-zone possessions in the last two games but have just 5 touchdowns to show for those opportunities.
Michigan State is settling for too many field goals — or failing to get any points at all — when it does the work of getting into scoring position. It can’t settle for anything less than touchdowns if it wants to beat Rutgers.
Kevin Goheen covers Michigan State for Landof10.com. Follow him on Twitter at @CincyGoGo