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Michigan State Spartans Football Preview: Rutgers

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Joe breaks down the upcoming game against Rutgers

Mike Carter-USA TODAY Sports

After the Air Force and Central Michigan games, I suggested that we stop paying so much attention to total yardage stats. I think that's clearly justified for a number of reasons; I got virtually no push-back from any of you on that.

But what if we took it a step further and put less stock into final score margins? The game against Air Force is sort of a great example in that the final touchdown by the Falcons was meaningless (Brian Fremeau counts it as garbage-time). Purdue is another good one, because weather played such a factor and because a good stats breakdown shows that MSU had major advantages in nearly all aspect of the game. Yes, the ending was crazy. But the majority of the game was dominated by MSU.

Final game margin is certainly a good way to get a quick feel for likely competitiveness of a game. But we have better tools to measure just how well a team performed, if you're willing to give them a chance. And clearly I'm well beyond that point.

Before, I advocated for #DeathToTotalYardageStats. Can I also advocate for #ChronicIllnessToMarginObsession? How about #GetJoeHashtagCreationTraining?

When Rutgers Has the Ball

Rushing Offense

The running backs depth chart for Rutgers would make Mark Dantonio blush; there are 4 co-starters listed. This is odd because only three of those four have gotten significant playing time. Sophomore Josh Hicks has 62 carries and averages 6.0 YPC, Sophomore Robert Martin has 41 carries and 6.1 YPC, and Senior Paul James has 40 carries and 4.2 YPC. The fourth co-starter is Justin Goodwin, and he's only received 3 carries thus far. He's the Delton Williams of their running backs rotation.

And Rutgers likes to run the ball. Their run-pass split is 174:111 and they're top-30 nationally in run rates on standard downs. This is probably what happens when you elevate your running backs coach to head coach.

They've had some success here, though largely against against marginal competition. Against a real run defense (Penn State), their sack-adjusted total was 23 rushes for 80 yards, and Hicks averaged 7.0 ypc. Not terrible, but not fear-inducing.

The offensive line is big (three of five are 6'6 and 300+) and four of five starters are upperclassmen. In fact, at this point I'd probably argue the offensive line is the strength of this Scarlet Knights team; they've avoided allowing negative rushing plays (top-10 nationally in terms of stuff rate), they've done a nice job ensuring reasonable success in the running game (top-30 nationally in rushing success rate) and...

Passing Offense

The Rutgers offensive line is tops nationally in Bill Connelly's Sack Rate statistic. This is an interesting test for MSU's defensive line.

Gone is Rutgers legend Gary Nova, replaced by sophomore Chris Laviano. Laviano ranks second in the Big Ten in terms of passer rating despite a 6:5 touchdown to interception ratio because he's completed 72 percent of his passes. This is not a banner year for Big Ten quarterbacks.

Anyways, the Scarlet Knight strategy has been to keep things short and simple for Laviano; they have a high success rate when passing the ball (2nd nationally) but don't get many explosive plays (111th in IsoPPP nationally). That could change with the reinstatement of star wideout Leonte Carroo, who boasts a yards per target average more than twice of any other Rutgers receiver.

This is a bad matchup for MSU. Against some other less-than-stellar competition, this MSU secondary has allowed long, sustained drives by efficient passing attacks. And that was before two starters got injured. The good news is that Laviano's 5 interceptions in 4 games means he's still going to make some mistakes. MSU will need to capitalize on them.

When MSU Has the Ball

I'm scrapping the rushing/passing headers here, because opponents have passed the ball against Rutgers a laughably huge amount. This is understandable, given that Rutgers' depth chart has more freshmen on it than MSU's (and that's saying something). Opponents have thrown the ball nearly 60% of the time in non-obvious passing situations, compared to the national average of about 40%. That's more than any other defense in the nation, and opponents have been right to do so: Rutgers is 124th nationally against the pass in terms of S&P+.

The basic question becomes: how much does MSU allow Connor Cook to pass behind a makeshift offensive line? By my kneeldown & sack-adjusted numbers, MSU has run the ball 77 times compared to 38 passing attempts in the last two games. And I'm going to punt on the answer to that question, because it depends on the flow of the game, much like it did against Purdue.

I also expect the running game to be effective, partially because of the continued success of L.J. Scott and Madre London, and partially because the offensive line depth seems more adept at run blocking than pass blocking (or at least it did against Purdue and Central Michigan).

Special Teams

Oh boy. I wrote in my Five Factors review of the game against Purdue that special teams were worse against Purdue than in any other game of the year. It will be a challenge against Rutgers, also. There's one reason for that: Janarion Grant. He did this:

And this:

And also this:

Please don't punt to Janarion Grant, OK?

Elsewhere in special teams, Rutgers appears competent. They're middling in punting themselves (9th in the B1G in net yards per punt) and their kicker is 3-4 so far this year. Small sample size caveats apply, but that's still pretty good.

Bottom Line and Prediction

I get the feeling that the gameplan will be to pound green, pound and get the hell out of New Jersey. Which seems like a reasonable strategy, and I figure it probably works for much of the game.

However, I think Rutgers ends up passing the ball pretty well against this MSU secondary. And if field position is an issue again (and I think it could be), then this game will be closer than I want it to be.

I think MSU is comfortably ahead for 3 and a half quarters. Rutgers scores a late touchdown and fails to get the onside kick to make the final score look weirdly close once more.

MSU 31-Rutgers 28