Rutgers comes to East Lansing on Saturday with a 2-7 overall record and is winless in six Big Ten games. That’s not so surprising. The fact that Michigan State has the exact same records is a surprise.
The winner of this game will get out of the basement of the Big Ten East and feel good about itself for the first time in a long time. Rutgers has lost six games in a row since beating New Mexico 37-28 on Sept. 17. That happens to be the same date of Michigan State’s last win, the 36-28 victory at Notre Dame that seems so long ago. The Spartans have lost seven in a row since then.
The Scarlet Knights are in their third season in the Big Ten and are just 4-18 in conference games. Michigan State would appear to have the upper hand in this game, but that also appeared to be the case last week at Illinois. The Spartans lost 31-27.
Ryan Dunleavy (@rydunleavy) covers Rutgers for NJ.com and the Star-Ledger. He took some time out this week to join Landof10.com to discuss Saturday’s game and the Rutgers rebuild under former Ohio State assistant Chris Ash.
Q: Chris Ash is in his first season at Rutgers. There have been the notable blowout losses against Ohio State and Michigan in Big Ten play as well as Pac-12 leader Washington, but three losses have been by one possession. Where is this team in terms of development? Is it closer than people may think or is this process going to take more patience than most places?
Dunleavy: You sum it up pretty well. Rutgers is a long way from competing at the top of the Big Ten but not far off from competing with the middle of the pack, as evidenced by its losses to Iowa, Minnesota and Indiana by a total of 15 points. Add in the closer-than-it-seems 17-point loss to Illinois. Ash brought with him a comprehensive long-term plan for everything from recruiting to strength and conditioning that is still in the early stages. Rutgers is paying the price right now for average recruiting classes from 2013 through 15 that have been taken down another notch by an unusually high amount of roster turnover. In other words, Rutgers has many Big Ten-caliber starters but not Big Ten-caliber depth.
Q: Michigan State has had its share of quarterback issues this season. Rutgers has had five different players throw passes this season. What’s going on at QB for the Scarlet Knights?
Dunleavy: Gio Rescigno, a Michigan native, is the guy for at least the rest of this season. Credit Rescigno for winning what amounts to a game of Survivor. Chris Laviano, who started 11 of 12 games last season, reclaimed his job under a new coaching staff by being the most consistent quarterback in the offseason workouts and practices. He hung onto it for the first seven games of this season, which seemed too long given that he repeated many of the gameday shortcomings that he showed last season. As Laviano struggled, Rutgers turned in-game to TCU transfer Zach Allen and true freshman Tylin Oden.
Neither was effective for any number of reasons, including lack of experience, but the once lightly regarded Rescigno lit a spark for his teammates when he got his chance. He provides the mobility suited for a power spread offense and he is a better passer than anyone expected. The team has rallied around his emotion, commitment and improvisation. Look for Oden to take snaps in situational spots.
Q: Michigan State has proven throughout the season it can’t stop the run. Six different running backs have had 100-yard games against the Spartans in the last six games. Who’s the biggest threat at running back for Rutgers? What kind of chances does he have making it seven 100-yard backs in seven games against Michigan State?
Dunleavy: The biggest threat is Robert Martin, but his status for the game is uncertain due to injury. Martin hasn’t had a carry in either of the last two games, though he curiously played on special teams last week. He was leading the Big Ten in rushing after the first four weeks of this season. If Martin can’t go, Rutgers loses its best home run threat and red-zone finisher. Rutgers debuted a two-halfback set for Justin Goodwin and Josh Hicks two games ago with success against Minnesota and kept it against Indiana. If Martin returns, I still expect this package will be used somewhat. In that case, the finesse Goodwin is the featured back over the hard-charging Hicks.
Q: Illinois defensive ends Carroll Phillips and Dawuane Smoot caused havoc against the Michigan State offensive line last week. Who are two defensive players that stand out for Rutgers? What are their best attributes and why do they have a chance to succeed against Michigan State?
Dunleavy: Rutgers’ veteran-laden defensive line was supposed to be the strength of the team at season’s start but had underachieved until taking the lead on 13 tackles for loss against Indiana. End Julian Pinnix-Odrick – a former Michigan State recruit – leads the team with 8.5 tackles for loss, 4.5 sacks and six quarterback hurries. He also forced a fumble that was returned for a touchdown last game.
The back seven is far less experienced, but there are high hopes for free safety Saquan Hampton, who missed five games earlier this season due to injury. Hampton returned an interception 30 yards against Indiana and was flying as others moved in slow motion around him. Rutgers plans to rotate three safeties – Hampton, Kiy Hester and Anthony Cioffi – through the two spots this week. If all three can be on the field at once in sub packages, that would be a good thing for Rutgers.
Q: Michigan State needed a touchdown with 43 seconds left to beat Rutgers 31-24 last season. That’s when the Spartans were ranked No. 4 in the country and playing well. Now they’re in the same boat as Rutgers, trying to win their first Big Ten game. How does Rutgers come into Spartan Stadium and extend Michigan State’s losing streak to eight games?
Dunleavy: Win the line of scrimmage. Rutgers has fared much better against teams that want to go toe-to-toe physically — the exception being Michigan — than it has against teams that want to utilize perimeter speed. You mentioned how Michigan State has struggled against the run. Well, Rutgers is ranked last in the Big Ten in stopping the run – and the Michigan State tandem of L.J. Scott and Gerald Holmes must be licking their chops. Also, Rutgers has been good for at least one special teams blunder most games, whether it be a turnover, a blocked kick or a kick return for a touchdown. That could be the difference in a tight game between two teams playing for pride.
Kevin Goheen covers Michigan State for Landof10.com. Follow him on Twitter at @CincyGoGo