Michigan State needed LJ Scott’s 3-yard touchdown run with 43 seconds left to pull out a 31-24 win at Rutgers last year. The Spartans would love to see a repeat on Saturday. They’d love to see any kind of performance that results in a win.
The quest to end the program’s longest losing streak in 34 years continues Saturday when Michigan State hosts Rutgers in a battle of teams seeking their first Big Ten wins of the season. The Spartans and Scarlet Knights enter the game with identical records of 2-7 overall and 0-6 in the Big Ten. It’s not that big of a shock that Rutgers and first-year head coach Chris Ash are in this position, but this season has tested the collective psyche of Michigan State.
A year ago, the Spartans were winning close game after close game by making plays they needed to make in the fourth quarter. That hasn’t been the case this season, evidenced by the fact that they’ve been outscored by twice as much (106-53) in the fourth quarter and overtime this season. Michigan State has led in the second half of four of its seven losses, including taking a 27-24 lead with less than 3 minutes to play last week at Illinois.
The Illini scored late and held on for a 31-27 victory.
Here’s a closer look at this week’s Michigan State-Rutgers matchup:
When Michigan State has the ball
The Spartans offensive line had all kinds of trouble last week with Illinois defensive ends Carroll Phillips and Dawuane Smoot. Julian Pinnix-Odrick could pose similar issues with his speed and ability to disrupt things behind the line of scrimmage. Pinnix-Odrick has 4.5 sacks and 8.5 tackles for loss. He forced a fumble that was returned for a touchdown last week against Indiana.
Rutgers is giving up 445 yards per game, which tells you there’s not a lot of disruption going on, but Michigan State is dealing with health concerns.
Michigan State didn’t have left tackle Kodi Kieler available last week and his replacement, David Beedle, left the game with an injury. Right tackles Miguel Machado and Thiyo Lukusa struggled and were eventually replaced by Cole Chewins. Right guard Brian Allen left the game injured in the fourth quarter. How many of them are available to play Saturday is unknown but whoever is in there must do a better job opening holes in the run game for Scott, Gerald Holmes and Madre London.
They’ll also need to more effectively protect the quarterback, whether it’s Tyler O’Connor or Damion Terry. Illinois had just two sacks last week but O’Connor and Terry were moved off their launch spot 22 times, disrupting the rhythm of the passing game.
Edge: Michigan State
When Rutgers has the ball
The Scarlet Knights have started moving the ball the last couple of games under sophomore Giovanni Rescigno, a native of Warren, Mich. He’s played the last three games and made two starts in a pair of close losses against Minnesota and Indiana. He has thrown five touchdowns and three interceptions in those games while being sacked eight times.
Creating turnovers and getting pressure on the quarterback have been two things Michigan State has not done well this season. The Spartans have managed only seven sacks in nine games, including just two in the last six games. Illinois quarterback Jeff George Jr. was forced off his throwing spot just twice last week. The Spartans have only 10 takeaways this season. Rutgers has lost the ball 16 times, 11 on fumbles.
The defense played well in spurts last week at Illinois but it also gave up touchdowns at the end of the first half and the end of regulation that cost Michigan State the game.
Rutgers has allowed three returns for touchdowns on special teams this season. Michigan State hasn’t had many explosive plays from its return game but this could be an opportunity to change that. Rutgers punter Michael Cintron is averaging just 37.9 yards per kick.
Michigan State kicker Michael Geiger made all four of his field-goal attempts last week at Illinois. The Spartans would prefer he kick extra points but he was able to salvage some points out of repeated stalled drives in Illinois territory. Punter Jake Hartbarger put two kicks inside the 10-yard line last week after a touchback on his first attempt. He helped Michigan State win the field position battle.
Edge: Michigan State
Chris Ash is in his first season at Rutgers, like Lovie Smith of Illinois last week. Unlike Smith, this is Ash’s first head coaching job so he’s learning what does and does not work as the season goes along. He seems to have settled on a quarterback, which is always good.
Mark Dantonio has pushed every button he knows in trying to end this losing streak. The team hasn’t quit on him but it has lacked the discipline to make plays in the fourth quarter. That’s uncharacteristic of a Dantonio team.
Edge: Michigan State
Whose losing streak comes to an end? Michigan State’s is at seven games. Rutgers has lost six in a row. The last time either team won was on Sept. 17 (Michigan State at Notre Dame, Rutgers vs. New Mexico) so somebody will finally be happy walking off the field. The winner gets out of the Big Ten East basement and can hold its head up a little bit.
Kevin Goheen’s prediction: Michigan State 30, Rutgers 21.
Luke Srodulski’s prediction: Rutgers 27, Michigan State 23
Kevin Goheen covers Michigan State for Landof10.com. Follow him on Twitter at @CincyGoGo
Luke Srodulski covers Michigan State recruiting for Landof10.com. Follow him on Twitter at @lsrodulski