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Game Preview: Rutgers Scarlet Knights vs. Michigan State Spartans

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COLLEGE FOOTBALL: NOV 23 Michigan State at Rutgers Photo by John Jones/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Well, it’s been a while since I’ve last had to write one of these rather lengthy pieces. But that means that after a long hiatus in which the fall Big Ten football season was canceled and then brought back to life, Michigan State Spartans football is finally back! The Spartans take on the Rutgers Scarlet Knights at noon (Eastern Time) in East Lansing on Saturday to kick-off the shortened 2020, conference-only, season.

This season is, well, unpredictable, and it’s going to look and feel a lot different. There will be no fans allowed at Spartan Stadium, and additionally, several game-day traditions will be nixed in an effort to limit potential exposure to the coronavirus.

That said, there will be an actual football game played. Here is our in-depth preview for the opening week contest between Rutgers and Michigan State.

Tale of the Tape

Michigan State:
2019 Record — 7-6 (4-5 in Big Ten, fifth in Eastern Division)

Offense (2019 per game average) — 371.9 total yards, 244.7 passing yards, 127.2 rushing yards

Defense (2019 per game average) — 321.6 total yards allowed, 207.85 passing yards allowed, 113.8 rushing yards allowed

Cumulative Points Scored (2019): 291 (22.38 ppg)

Cumulative Points Allowed (2019): 293 (22.54 ppg)

Current S&P+ Ranking: 51st (note: Big Ten teams have still been ranked here by ESPN all season despite not playing a game yet)

Rutgers:
2019 Record — 2-10 (0-9 in Big Ten, last in Eastern Division)

Offense (2019 per game average) — 273.1 total yards, 139.3 passing yards, 133.8 rushing yards

Defense (2019 per game average)— 433.6 yards allowed, 232.5 passing yards allowed, 201.1 rushing yards allowed

Cumulative Points Scored (2019): 159 (13.25 ppg)

Cumulative Points Allowed (2019): 440 (36.67 ppg)

Current S&P+ Ranking: 109th (note: Big Ten teams have still been ranked here by ESPN all season despite not playing a game yet)


Series History/All-Time Records

All-time head-to-head record: Michigan State leads 8-3
Current streak: Michigan State has won six games in a row
Last Michigan State Win: Nov. 23, 2019 (27-0)
Last Rutgers Win: Sept. 4, 2004 (19-14)
Michigan State all-time record: 708-465-44 (.600)
Rutgers all-time record: 654-668-42 (.495)

(Note: moving forward this season, the next section in these previews will be quick recaps of each team’s last week performance. Obviously, there is no last week data to go off of for this week’s preview).


Key Matchups

Greg Schiano versus Mel Tucker: The coaching staffs of each school are going to be just as important as the players on the field in this one. Both Michigan State and Rutgers usher in new eras. For Rutgers, it is a more familiar one as Greg Schiano leads the program for the second time around, having originally been at the helm from 2001 through 2011. For MSU, the Mel Tucker era (finally) begins. For the opening game, Tucker and his staff are expecting some “unscouted” looks from Rutgers, and I am sure Schiano and company are anticipating the same from the Spartans. Tucker also said that Schiano is a good friend of his. On Saturday, though, these two buddies and their respective staffs will go head to head. Whichever coach has their team more prepared, and which staff can call the right plays in the right situations, will win this game.

Elijah Collins versus Rutgers front seven: While the coaching staffs are important, the execution by the players on the field is going to be the difference between a win and a loss. A healthy Michigan State offensive line should clear the way for Elijah Collins — who averaged 4.5 yards per carry in 2019 — against a defense that allowed more than 201 yards on the ground to opposing offenses last season. Of course, 2020 is a brand new year. Linebacker Tyshon Fogg was Rutgers’ leading tackler last season and he returns, Olakunle Fatukasi was the program’s second leading tackler, and he also returns. This could be an improved group for the Scarlet Knights, but the defensive line needs to get penetration and free those players up. If MSU can control the clock and move the chains with the run game, the Spartans will be in good shape to get a victory.

Uh, who is starting at quarterback for either team?: Perhaps the two friends, Tucker and Schiano, are not trying to give each other a competitive advantage. Neither has named a starting quarterback for Saturday, and probably won’t until kickoff. For MSU, the race is between Rocky Lombardi, Payton Thorne and Theo Day (true freshman Noah Kim has been praised by Tucker as well, but I highly doubt we see him). For Rutgers, the early depth chart lists Artur Sitkowski “OR” Noah Vedral at quarterback. It’s quite possible we see some sort of mix of many of these signal-callers on Saturday. Both defensive backfields will need to adjust based on who is out there, and as Tucker said at his press conference earlier this week, this will be a “rules game” for each position on the field, meaning to follow the specific rules and techniques of your position and then make modifications based on what you’re seeing throughout the game — this will be especially key for the secondaries.


Game Info

Time: Noon (Eastern)
TV Channel: Big Ten Network (B1G Network)
Location: Spartan Stadium, East Lansing
Weather expectations: Partly cloudy, with high of 42 degrees, winds blowing north at six miles per hour
Line: Michigan State -13.5


Overview:

Look — anything can happen this season with the COVID-19 threat still looming, the cancelation of spring ball, the limited summer workouts, the postponement and then re-opening of fall camp, etc. I don’t quite know what to make of a this Michigan State team just yet. Both of these programs are ushering in new coaching staffs — although, for Schiano and Rutgers, it’s not entirely new. I’m not ruling anything out, but here is what I do know: Michigan State hasn’t lost to Rutgers since the George W. Bush administration was in office. And since Rutgers joined the Big Ten in 2014, the Spartans are 6-0 against the Scarlet Knights and have outscored them 206-44 in that timeframe. These programs are not in the same stratosphere and I won’t believe that Rutgers is capable of beating MSU on the football field (or basketball court, but that is a different story) until I see it happen.

The Mel Tucker regime is making its debut. This Michigan State team is pretty young, and relatively inexperienced in a lot of areas. The quarterback situation is still not figured out. The offensive line, which has struggled with inconsistencies and injuries for the past two seasons, returns a lot of experience. The skill positions offer a lot of talent. The defense is replacing a lot of starters (albeit with plenty of guys who have gotten reps here and there), and the special teams unit is looking for a bounce-back year. MSU has a roster that may surprise some folks. It also has a roster that leaves a lot to be desired at certain spots.

Again, how prepared this team is, how focused this team is and the coaching is going to go a long way in determining how this contest shakes out.

As for Rutgers, there are actually some similarities here. As mentioned, a new coaching staff takes over, just like at MSU, but it is with a head coach that’s already been there in the past. Just like MSU, Rutgers is also unsure of its quarterback situation with either Artur Sitkowski or Noah Vedral getting the nod, as mentioned. Both teams are also looking for bounce-back seasons — Rutgers’ 2019 campaign was downright miserable, while Michigan State’s was disappointing. Rutgers has also brought in several transfers who can make an immediate impact.

At the end of the day, I think Michigan State wins this one by double-digits and gains some confidence moving forward — but, remember, anything can happen in 2020 (and if I were a betting man, I wouldn’t touch that -13.5 line).

For more on Rutgers, check out our “Get to Know the Opponent” piece, and for some perspective from those closer to the program, review this preseason opponent preview from On The Banks — SB Nation’s website for all things Rutgers.

Poll

Who wins the opening week matchup?

This poll is closed

  • 24%
    Rutgers
    (31 votes)
  • 75%
    Michigan State
    (97 votes)
128 votes total Vote Now