There will always be excuses not to be satisfied. Sure, Michigan State only beat Rutgers on Saturday, and after the MSU win at Spartan Stadium, the Scarlet Knights became the only winless team in Big Ten play. Given how Rutgers hasn’t won a Big Ten game in nearly 13 months now, you could conceivably shrug this game off.
But when Coach Mark Dantonio said his team celebrated like it had won a championship, that became totally understandable, as well. The Spartans had dropped seven straight games and seemed capable of losing to just about anyone. They faced a Rutgers team that had at least shown signs of life, losing to Minnesota and Indiana by a combined eight points in its previous two games.
This one wasn’t even close. The 49-0 margin marked Michigan State’s first shutout since 2013 and its largest margin of victory in conference play since 2011. All this came after a disastrous seven-game stretch that saw fans calling for staff changes.
What led to this rapid change for Dantonio’s squad? Well, a lot of “credit” has to go to Rutgers for playing so poorly. But given how deeply and thoroughly Michigan State had struggled prior to Saturday, it’s important to take note of what it did well.
The pass rush
This year, it’s probably been as horrendous as any Dantonio has coached, especially when compared with how his offensive line has been able to protect. Here it is in his own words after he saw the film of the Spartans’ loss to Illinois.
“Twenty-two times in the game this past week we got pushed off the dime, which means the quarterback takes the ball from his launch point, not where he sets up at,” Dantonio said. “He got to move on his launch point 22 times. That’s a lot. We got them off the dime twice. That’s a problem.”
That’s twice that MSU even forced Illini quarterback Jeff George Jr. to do anything other than comfortably sit in the pocket. That had to change for this game, and it did.
Sure, you can look at the stats and see that once again, this team failed to even register a single sack. The tally is now at seven through 10 games, which is unacceptable. And yet, things looked a lot better against Rutgers.
A big reason why MSU didn’t have a sack is because of the solid mobility of Rutgers quarterback Giovanni Rescigno. In this game, he was forced to throw on the run a lot. And it seemed like whenever the pocket collapsed on him, sophomore linebacker Andrew Dowell was waiting to pounce.
This was one of the two plays for which Dowell received a quarterback hurry on the stat sheet. He took away a running lane and forced a split-second decision to throw, a difficult adjustment that yielded an incomplete pass.
Side note: Michigan State’s secondary has not been terrible this year. It’s had its breakdowns, but a lot of blame can and should be placed on a defensive line that has allowed quarterbacks enough time to raise a family before being forced to throw. You can only cover your assignments for so long before they find an inch of space.
In this game, the Rutgers receivers didn’t have much time to get open before Rescigno fell into trouble. Take this play, in which linebacker Chris Frey used his speed to get around the edge basically untouched.
The blitz has Rutgers in such disarray that the right guard ends up about a foot away from the intended receiver, and Rescigno tosses it right off his shoulder. This is a mistake-prone Scarlet Knights team that just needs to be pressured a bit to force those mistakes. MSU did that, even if the stat sheet didn’t clearly show huge improvement in the pass rush.
In his much better performances against Minnesota and Indiana, Rescigno threw the ball 38 and 36 times, respectively. In this game, he had just 16 passing attempts. Much of that is because of the mere 54 plays run by the Scarlet Knights. But don’t underestimate the impact of the pass rush rendering him largely ineffective through the air.
Red zone offense
It doesn’t seem like a big deal against Rutgers. The Spartans moved the ball effortlessly down the field, so of course they would finish by pounding it into the end zone.
It hasn’t been nearly as easy as it sounds this year. A plethora of factors have kept the Spartans from scoring when in the red zone this year. Four times, they turned it over on downs. Other occasions, they saw penalties derail their progress and either force them to kick a field goal or knock them completely out of range.
Red zone offense has been a major downfall for a group that hasn’t been able to finish games. Put the ball in the end zone for six points when you have the chance, and you build yourself a substantial enough lead to make up for the inevitable big plays that will be allowed in the fourth quarter.
Instead, scoring opportunities haven’t led to nearly as many points as they should. But against Rutgers, they did, and the lead was accurately represented in the final score.
As has happened on several occasions this year, Michigan State wasn’t hugely predictable running plays down near the goal line. The coaching staff didn’t just assume it could pound the ball in via the run. In its first two trips to the red zone, quarterback Tyler O’Connor found trusty tight end Josiah Price, a major matchup problem at 6-foot-4.
The final three games, either LJ Scott or Madre London finished off the drives on the ground. Only once in the red zone did scoring ever look potentially in doubt. Midway through the third quarter, MSU had fourth-and-1 and decided to go for it. That play showed just how much of an advantage the Spartans had in the trenches, as they easily cleared space for O’Connor to pick up a first down.
Unfortunately, we learned from Dantonio on Sunday that offensive lineman Tyler Higby broke his ankle on this play. He’ll miss the rest of the season.
While Michigan State thrived in the red zone — and just about every other spot on the field — Rutgers sputtered once in position to make someone of its rare opportunities. Granted great field position, the Scarlet Knights moved the ball all the way down to Michigan State’s 27-yard line in the second quarter.
But on third-and-8, they decided to stay on the ground and lost three yards. At the 30, they decided instead to give David Bonagura, who has hit from a long of 41 yards this season, a chance. It was puzzling, because the way Rutgers had been playing indicated it might not have many chances to score, and it already trailed 21-0.
How about a quick shoutout to the freshmen?
All year, Dantonio has been tossing his youngest players into the mix, knowing he needs to give them a chance either because of talent or necessity or both. They’ve largely been serviceable, but not spectacular.
In this game, many of the standout plays came from freshmen. Probably the biggest came in the form of a 50-yard touchdown reception from Trishton Jackson. And maybe the most memorable came from Donnie Corley.
In the postgame news conference, Corley looked as happy as he has in front of the media all year. Surely much of that has to do with the win, but he also gushed about the joy derived from laying hits like that. Since transitioning solely a receiver to a part-time cornerback, he has consistently improved.
Another player who came in projected as a receiver, Justin Layne, had one of his most impactful games at corner on Saturday. He had three tackles including the one below, which resulted in a six-yard loss.
We might not see any more wins this season from Michigan State. We certainly could, but maybe not. And even if this finishes a nine-loss year, it’s clear the youth movement we’ve seen here with prove to be a long-term benefit to the program.
These players are learning the ropes in a way they couldn’t through just practice and watching from the sideline.