Well Spartan fans it’s finally the last week of the regular season. Shortly after this we shall find out what bowl game MSU has qualified for because once again Mark Dantonio made Michigan State relevant in the college football world. Something he has done very well for quite some time now.
Other than 2016, Coach D made sure MSU was bowl eligible every year he’s been the lead man. Not an easy feat by any means but he has managed to pull it off.
If all goes according to plan later on today the Spartans will grab hold of their ninth win of 2017. Putting them one bowl victory short of finishing with 10 wins and a third place finish in the Big Ten East.
Before I get ahead of myself I’d like to introduce Aaron Breitman, the managing editor for On the Banks. The site all Rutgers fans should be visiting every chance they get! So if you haven’t go follow them both on twitter now!
The Rutgers are 4-7 (3-5 B1G) in Chris Ash's second season as head coach. It's still extremely early but is he the answer moving forward? Why?
I think that Ash has had his share of missteps so far, which is to be expected with a first time head coach, but he has also done a lot of positive things in improving the program as well. I think big picture wise, he has done a great job improving the culture, facilities, and the coaching staff. Recruiting has gone reasonably well, considering the team went 2-10 last season. It will need to get better and keeping local talent is key, but there is no doubt Ash has improved the talent and depth on the roster so far. The issue is he took over a program far behind the other teams in the Big Ten East and it's going to take time.
There were legitimate questions about Ash as a gameday coach and I think he has shown progress in that area this season. I think Ash will continue to learn on the job and get better over time. His ability to learn from mistakes has me optimistic that he is the right fit for the job and will turn Rutgers into a solid, middle of the pack team on a consistent basis in the Big Ten. Is he the guy to get Rutgers to the top of the conference? I'm not sure about that, but the reality is the program is far enough away that it would be a reach to say that about any coach right now, aside from a Saban or Meyer type, which isn't happening.
How does the fan base feel about Ash right now? And how do they feel about the team in general?
I think most fans feel expectations have more or less been met this season. There is certainly frustration with the offense, which is warranted, as well as how conservative the playcalling has been. However, I think Kill has done what he thought was best based on the talent he has to work with. While the overall numbers aren't much better, the offense has improved somewhat in putting the defense in a hole less so than last season.
I think you always have skeptics and there are a fair share who think Ash isn't the answer. I do think there is a disconnect between longtime fans and those that only experienced the past decade or so, whenever Rutgers regularly made a bowl game out of the Big East. I find it hard to be upset with a season that Rutgers doubled their win total and won three conference games for just the second time in four seasons. A win over Michigan State would make everyone happy, but you'd still have those complaining about the Eastern Michigan loss. I get it, but think rebuilds never progress in a straight line and that terrible loss actually helped the team in conference play.
Overall, most fans are happy with the progress they've seen and realize it's going to take time. For a team that was 1-4 at the start of October, winning three Big Ten games shows this team has improved, although there is a long way still to go.
What was your pre-season prediction for The Scarlet Knights?
I picked Rutgers to finish 5-7 this season and if they hadn't blown the second game of the season to Eastern Michigan, they would be right there. Most fans hoped for 4 to 5 wins this season, so it's fair to say Ash has gotten the team to meet expectations in his second year. The offense has been a major disappointment and is one of the worst units in college football for a second straight season.
Rutgers has struggled with consistency on that side of the ball, as Jerry Kill is the eighth offensive coordinator in eight seasons for the program. The hope is they'll improve with another offseason in his system and when younger players recruited under Ash start to emerge. The positives this season have been with the defense and special teams, which have seen major improvement with both units. Hopefully, Rutgers can rebound from a disappointing effort last week against Indiana and give an encouraging performance against Michigan State, setting some positive momentum heading into the offseason.
What's been the biggest surprise this year?
I think drastic improvement with special teams play has been the biggest surprise this season. Although one of the program's strengths over the years has been in this area, things really bottomed out last season. The unit was a major problem, making mistakes in every area and it constantly put the team in a hole regarding field position. It was also a sign of how depleted the roster was and needed a serious talent upgrade.
This season, an influx of transfers and true freshmen have greatly improved the play of special teams. Rutgers currently has the top kickoff coverage unit in the Big Ten. True freshman kicker Justin Davidovicz kicks it into the end zone for touchbacks on kickoffs and grad transfer punter Ryan Anderson has been arguably the most valuable player on the roster. A lot of true freshmen have gotten experience on coverage teams and you can see the progress they've made since the beginning of the season. Hopefully the play of special teams this season is a microcosm of how the program will improve over time under Ash.
Who are three players the Spartans should keep an eye on?
Johnathan Lewis is a true freshman quarterback who has played at times this season and may start in this game. Current starter Gio Rescigno has been a gutty player and mostly mistake free, but Rutgers simply has had no success in the passing game all season with Gio and grad transfer Kyle Bolin, who he replaced after five games. Lewis has the most upside and who I've been pushing to take over for weeks. I think he is the favorite to start next season and this game would be a great opportunity for him experience and film to learn from in the offseason. Even if he doesn't start, I expect him to play a lot. He is a big, mobile quarterback with a cannon of an arm, but he is still raw and learning the offense. Even so, let the kid play!
Kiy Hester is a three year starter at strong safety and is a playmaker on defense. He is tied with the team lead with three interceptions and has run two back for touchdowns. He actually should have a third pick six, as he dropped a sure thing against Michigan. Hester is also a big hitter in the back of the defense.
Ryan Anderson is our punter and while it might seem odd to include him, he is extremely valuable. Rutgers also punts a lot and his performance has been a key in the wins over Purdue and Maryland. If this is a close game, his ability to pin the Spartans inside their own 20 will be a major plus. In the battle for field position, Anderson can give Rutgers an edge in this game.
What are the keys to victory for Rutgers?
Rutgers is basically a poor man's version of Michigan State and will need to beat them at their own game. The offense is geared around running the football early and often, in order to control the pace of the game and dominate time of possession. The defense has instituted a bend, but don't break philosophy this season and it's worked at times. Rutgers has struggled to generate a consistent push at the line on both sides of the ball and will need to find a way to just that against Michigan State. The secondary has 12 interceptions on the season, so they'll need to force at least a couple turnovers in this game. Special teams play needs to be on point as well. If Rutgers has any chance to win, they'll have to play mistake free football, they must capitalize on any mistakes by the Spartans, forcing a short field for the offense by scoring touchdowns and not settling for field goals.
Prediction time: Final score? Who wins? Why?
I think this will be a hard fought game and that Rutgers will have an emotional edge on senior day and make this a battle. They've struggled most against pass heavy teams and the fact that Michigan State is not that makes me think it will be a close game. Ultimately, the Spartans have too much talent and depth, having enough to pull out s close game on the road. Michigan State 20 Rutgers 13.
I’d like to give one last thank you to Aaron and everyone over at On the Banks for putting this together! Especially during the week of Thanksgiving, your efforts are greatly appreciated.