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Michigan State Football Preview: Game Ten — Rutgers

With Ohio St and Penn St looming in the final two weeks, the Scarlet Knights look like MSU’s best chance for a Big Ten win in 2016. This sucks.

NCAA Football: Indiana at Rutgers Ed Mulholland-USA TODAY Sports

When Michigan State and Rutgers square off Saturday, it will have been 57 days since MSU’s last victory. That’s a really long time, but nearly as long as it might be if things go wrong.

If MSU can’t win Saturday, that number will, in all likelihood, jump all the way up to 350 — as in the number of days between the win over Notre Dame and next year’s opener against Bowling Green.

Think about that. 15 days short of a calendar year between victories. What. The. Hell.

This has already been a bad week. A loss Saturday may make it the worst on record.

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2016 has already been a downright embarrassment but losing to Rutgers at home to all but ensure a winless Big Ten slate and two win season (!!!) would be akin to ripping your pants as you faceplant into a pile of shit while chasing your runaway bride from the alter in the rain.

I do not mean to offend or throw stones, seeing as Michigan State is in no position to be doing either at the moment, but Rutgers is arguably the worst team in the nation.

A couple superlatives:

  • Of the 128 division teams, the Scarlet Knights rank 99th in Total Defense (ypg) and 124th in Total Offense, ahead of only Vanderbilt, Boston College, Georgia St. and Kent St. (ypg).
  • Their two wins came against Howard and New Mexico.
  • In back-to-back weeks against Michigan and Ohio State — two admittedly great teams — they were outscored 136-0 and in a four-week span, 184-14.

All that being said, they have given their last two opponents — Minnesota and Indiana — a much tougher fight, only losing by a total of five. Surely they do not want to lose to another two win team like MSU.

This season has taken us all to some dark places but I never in a millions years thought I would find myself BEGGING for a win against one of College Football’s punchlines. I am the sad boy. Bring me your pity.

Scarlet Knight Offense vs Spartan Defense

Indiana v Rutgers Photo by Michael Reaves/Getty Images

Notable Knights

  • Leading Passer: QB Chris Laviano — 70-for-145 (48.3%) 748 yards, 5 TD/2 INT
  • Leading Rusher: RB Robert Martin — 97 carries, 515 yards, 1 TD
  • Leading Receiver: WR Jawuan Harris — 29 catches, 373 yards, 3 TD

Notable Spartans

  • Leading Tackler: LB Chris Frey — 75 tackles, 1.5 TFL
  • Leading Sack Artist: DT Raequan Williams — 2 sacks / DL Malik McDowell — 7 TFL
  • Leading Ball Hawk: CB Darian Hicks — 2 INT

When Illinois drops 31 with a 3rd string quarterback playing, things are about as bad as they can get...hopefully.

As always, the problems start up front. MSU continues to get no pass rush, although it’s slightly more understandable now that the true freshman like Auston Robertson, Josh King and Mike Panasiuk are getting the vast majority of the reps.

This week they’ll be chasing after another backup, this one Warren De La Salle grad Giovanni Rescigno. Rescigno took over the starting job three weeks ago after incumbent starter Chris Laviano went down with an injury and appears to be getting better each week. In Rutgers’ last two games he’s gone a combined 41-for-74 (55%) for 478 yards, 4 TD’s and 2 INT’s. Pretty respectable numbers if you ask me.

His top targets are Jawuan Harris and Andre Patton. Harris is a 5’9” jitterbug while Patton is the big bodied compliment at 6’3” 210. Neither would be described as game breakers but both are capable of putting up nice numbers. The running game is fairly pedestrian, but has perked up recently behind Robert Martin.

Honestly, who knows. The defense has a tendency to play well, especially against the run, for the first three quarters and then fall apart altogether at the end. They’ll have to build a nice lead so that if (when) this happens this week, they can sustain the blow.

Spartan Offense vs Scarlet Knight Defense

Michigan State v Illinois Photo by Michael Hickey/Getty Images

Notable Spartans

  • Leading Passer: QB Tyler O’Connor — 121-for-198 (61.1%) 1,606 yards, 12 TD/7 INT
  • Leading Rusher: RB LJ Scott — 129 carries, 653 yards, 4 TD
  • Leading Receiver: WR RJ Shelton — 44 catches, 678 yards, 5 TD

Notable Scarlet Knights

  • Leading Tackler: LB Trevor Morris — 73 tackles, 3.5 TFL, 1 sack
  • Leading Sack Artist: DE Julian Pinnix-Odrick — 4.5 sacks, 8.5 TFL
  • Leading Ball Hawk: S Anthony Cioffi — 2 INT

The offensive line has been the biggest issue with the Spartan offense all season, and last week was perhaps the most egregious display so far.

First, starting right tackle Miguel Machado — one of those fifth-year seniors MSU was counting on this year — was consistently abused by Duwuane Smoot. He was pulled. Then his replacement, Thiyo Lukusa — one of those true freshman who was forced into action — immediately had a false start and was subsequently beaten by Smoot and benched. Finally, after all else failed, Cole Chewins — one of those guys who wasn’t supposed to play this year — came in. He held his own by the skin of his teeth and was not benched. I suppose that is a victory. Hold me, please.

It’s not good. In fact, it’s quite bad. Illinois did have some phenomenal TFL numbers coming in and showed why. The quarterbacks were running for their lives all day and it once again led to an injury, this time to Tyler O’Connor.

O’Connor is apparently practicing and may be good to go this week but was under the concussion protocol for a while after his head bounced off the ground on a hit. Damion Terry came in to replace him and actually didn’t look too bad. His completion percentage was low (50%) and he wasn’t helped by a dropped touchdown by Josiah Price, but he also flashed the arm and speed that has always made fans drool.

His touchdown pass to RJ Shelton was remarkable but the easy misses on throws are incredibly frustrating. That said, if he can figure out some consistency in the offseason, Lewerke isn’t healthy yet and deWeaver isn’t fully developed, I wouldn’t be shocked to see him draw an early season start or two in 2017. (This is what grasping at straws looks like.)

Speaking of the future, important shout out to Felton Davis, who stepped in for Monty Madaris and had a career best six catches for 56 yards. Davis looked like a guy ready to make the most of his chance, an attitude that hopefully rubs off on some of his fellow underclassmen.

This week, whomever the QB is will not have to contend with nearly as stout a pass rush. The Scarlet Knights do have a couple penetrators in Julian Pinnix-Odrick and Darnell Davis (6 TFL) but only have a collective 16 sacks through nine games.

MSU had some success in the second half running the ball last week and that’s probably the best way to win this one, be it with Gerald Holmes or LJ Scott. If the line can’t block, the QB’s will scramble, probably make poor decisions and allow Rutgers to stay in this game.

Special Teams

Iowa v Rutgers Photo by Michael Reaves/Getty Images

It isn’t about who is playing for Rutgers on special teams, it’s about who isn’t playing. That would be all-world return man Janarion Grant and, man, is that a break for MSU.

Grant, Rutgers’ all-time leading kick return yardage leader, has an NCAA record eight combined kick and punt returns for touchdowns in his three-plus years as a Scarlet Knight, but was felled by a ankle injury early on this season. Given MSU’s propensity for allowing big special teams plays, this couldn’t be better news.

Rutgers’ other specialists are rather pedestrian but their kicker David Bonagura is 10-for-12 on the season.

On the Spartan side, Michael Geiger was easily the highlight of the Illinois game, as he hit all four of his attempts including a long of 46. That’s two straight weeks with a long field goal for the senior. I have been pretty critical of Geiger here in the past, and my stomach still turns when he trots onto the field, but he’s putting together his best year since his tremendous freshman campaign and deserves some recognition.

Bottom Line and Prediction

NCAA Football: Michigan State at Illinois Mike Granse-USA TODAY Sports

So, it’s come to this. One last chance to add to the win column before facing two top ten teams. Once last chance to stay out of not only the Big Ten cellar, but the national cellar. One last chance for a few different coaches to prove to fans, players and fellow staff that their jobs should not be on the line.

Last week, I said that heads should roll if MSU lost to Illinois. They lost and yet everyone is still gainfully employed. If MSU manages to lose at home to Rutgers this week and coaches are still employed I will, for the first time, question Dantonio’s handling of his program.

Rutgers is awful. Yes, they are playing much better of late but they are still awful. A loss here would be the lowest low of not only the Dantonio era, but possibly program history. This game is about pride. Defend your home turf and show you care.

I’m not making a prediction. Maybe that’ll work.

No prediction, just prayers.