Not exactly the start to the Mel Tucker era we had in mind was it? Michigan State opens the delayed and abbreviated 2020 season by losing to Rutgers 38-27 at home. It was a collective effort that was obviously heavily impacted by the SEVEN Spartan turnovers, nine if you include turnovers on downs.
When I asked on Twitter, most everyone wanted to take the approach of burning the game film. I’m not sure it is going to get a whole lot better going forward, but I hear where you are coming from. Instead we are going to break down some stuff upon reviewing the game, to try and highlight what exactly went wrong overall.
First Down Struggles
One of the things that jumped out to me while watching the game was how ineffective the Spartan offense was on first down. So let’s break it down and see if it was as bad as it looked upon first viewing.
The first play of the season on offense for MSU was a 19 yard completion to transfer wideout Jayden Reed...who then promptly fumbled the ball and Rutgers recovered. It was a good play before that though.
The next possession was a hand-off up the middle to Heyward that was stuffed for -5 yards. Two plays later Lombardi is hit and fumbles on third-and-14 and Rutgers recovers at the MSU one-yard line.
Next up was a two yard run by Collins. The Spartans would run it four times in a row on this possession and turn it over on downs.
The next possession was good, finally. Jordan Simmons got his first carry of the season and took it eight yards on first down. A positive result!
Following another Simmons run to move the chains, the next first down was an incomplete pass to Nailor.
Simmons would then carry again for 14 yards to move the sticks, and then get the call on first down again and gain one yard.
Four plays later on fourth-and-one Reed would catch a short pass, and take it 50 yards to the house for a score.
That would be the last MSU possession of the first quarter. And here are the 1st down stats:
Six Plays, 25 yards, 4.17 yards per play, 1 turnover, zero first downs
Two passing plays (1-2, 19 yards, fumble)
Four running plays for six yards (1.5 YPC)
Two plays for zero or negative yards
That doesn’t look all that bad on the surface, but keep in mind that 19 of those 25 yards came on one play, and that play ended in a fumble. Take that out and its 1.2 yards per play on first down.
Next time with the ball they start with a Collins run for zero yards. They do convert 3rd-and-long to keep the drive alive, and then the next play is a pass to Reed for a two yard loss. Three plays later Lombardi is picked off.
Next possession has Simmons back out and he carries for seven yards to start the drive. They move the chains and then Lombardi throws incomplete to Reed on first down. MSU is then able to convert third down again, and the next play is another incomplete pass, this time intended for Tre Mosley.
After a penalty and another third down conversion, they try a trick running play to Reed, who loses eight yards. On the next play Reed fumbles after a 10 yard gain and Rutgers recovers.
The Spartan defense comes up with a turnover though, and sets the offense up at the Rutgers 30 yard line. And on first down Collins runs up the middle for no gain, and MSU gets called for holding.
First-and-20 and it’s a Collins run that loses a yard.
Spartans get enough back to get Coghlin in field goal range though and that’s how that dive ends.
So to this point the 2nd quarter numbers are: 8 plays for -4 yards and a holding penalty.
Last drive of the half balances things out a little. MSU is in hurry up with just 36 seconds to go in the half. Lombardi completes three straight passes on first down for 15, 11, and two yards. This is enough to help get into field goal range again for Coghlin to put three more points on the board.
Final Totals for the 2nd Quarter:
11 plays, 24 yards, 2.18 yards per play, one turnover, two first downs
Six passes (4-6, 26 yards, 4.3 YPA)
Five runs for -2 yards
SEVEN plays for zero or negative yards
First Half Totals: 17 plays, 49 yards, 2.88 yards per play, nine plays for zero or negative yards.
More than half your plays on first down in the first half went for zero or negative yards. That isn’t going to get it done. They also managed just four yards rushing on nine carries. Incredibly bad.
Second half starts the same with a two yard loss on a run for Wright. The drive continues and Lombardi hits Dotson for five yards on the next first down. They keep moving the ball and it’s followed with another run for negative yards by Simmons that loses three. Two plays later on first down Simmons is stood up at the line and stripped of the ball. Another turnover.
Next possession starts again with a run, this time Heyward gets three yards, which is actually a very positive result given what has been going on. They move the chains and Lombardi hits Nailor on the next first down for 12 yards. That is immediately followed by another negative run for two yards. This drive ends in a punt.
MSU forces a turnover on the punt, and on the next play Lombardi hits Nailor who gets passed his defender and takes it down the sideline for a 30 yard touchdown.
After MSU forces another turnover, they run the ball four straight times and turn it over again. That drive started with a 5 yard run by Lombardi on first down.
That is the last time MSU has the ball in the third quarter. Here are the totals for the quarter”
Nine plays for 48 yards (5.33 yards per play), one first down, one touchdown
Three passes (3-3, 47 yards, TD)
Six runs for one yard
Four plays for zero or negative yards
First possession of the fourth quarter and they start with a four yard completion to Heyward. After converting on third down they start the next series with a run up the middle for no gain. Three plays later they punt.
Rutgers then gets two straight possessions after the muffed punt by MSU and scores to go up 18 points. At this point MSU is in desperation mode on offense the rest of the way.
They come out chucking the ball as you would expect. Lombardi completes passes for five and four yards on first downs, before getting called for intentional grounding. Then he completes one for 13 yards, and gets a defensive pass interference call on the next play. That is then followed by a hand-off for four yards. Next play is a touchdown.
Spartans get it back down 11 with 1:20 to go. Lombardi scrambles on first for six yards. After picking up a fourth down, Lombardi thrown incomplete on first down. The next play is an interception and that does it.
Here’s your fourth quarter breakdown:
10 plays, 34 yards, one intentional grounding, one defensive pass interference
Seven passes (4-6, 26 yards, one grounding penalty and one drawn DPI)
Three runs for eight yards
Three plays for zero or negative
Final Totals: 36 plays, 131 yards (3.63 yards per play)
Passing: 18 plays for 118 yards, one TD, one fumble
Running: 18 plays for 13 yards, one fumble
Zero or Negative Plays: 16
That my friends, is how you lose football games. A complete inability to run the ball on first down is something that has become more of a trend than anything else for this football team the last few years, and we saw it carry over to the start of the Tucker tenure as well.
What is mildly impressive is that Michigan State was able to score 27 points and amass 369 total yards while being so inefficient on first down and turning it over seven times.
MSU was able to convert seven of seventeen third downs, or a little over 41 percent. That isn’t bad, and it’s an improvement over last year when they were at 36.46 percent on third downs. But you have to figure they can do at least that well or better if they can put themselves in more favorable down and distances, and that starts with being efficient on first down.
This was obviously the biggest factor in the game. You cannot turn the ball over that many times and hope to win, regardless of the opponent.
Looking at just the traditional turnovers, three of them led to Rutgers touchdowns. All three of those turnovers set Rutgers up deep in MSU territory. The first one was the fumble that set them up at the one-yard line, then the interception that was taken back to the Spartan 23-yard line, and the muffed punt, which gave it to the Knights at the MSU 26-yard line.
Those are killers and basically handed Rutgers 21-points. Even if your defense comes up with stops on the second two, you are looking at likely field goals and 13 free points.
The other aspect of turnovers is taking scoring opportunities away from yourself. That could certainly be said about the second Jayden Reed fumble, which occurred at the Rutgers 24-yard line on the 11th play of the drive. It was going to be third down and around eight yards to go, already in field goal range. That fumble cost you at least three points.
The other one that was similar was the Jordan Simmons fumble on the opening drive of the second half. That one happened at the Rutgers 41-yard line, on a first down. That was another promising drive that was derailed by poor ball security and while they weren’t yet in scoring position, they appeared to be on their way.
The good news on the turnovers front is they were almost all totally avoidable and easily fixable. Reed and Simmons need to be stronger with the ball, and Nailor just muffed a punt.
The first interception was a miscommunication, which also is fixable, and likely due to a lack of practice time while learning a new scheme.
The fumble by Lombardi was a result of poor pass protection from the running back, and unfortuatnely, we saw that a few times from multiple different backs. That needs to be cleaned up and fixed.
Overall I do not expect them to have the dropsies for the entire season. And there were good things to see from the offense, but the turnovers and the first down efficiency both need to be addressed immediately, or they are going to continue to put themseleves in very difficult positons. And this team is not one that is equipped to overcome a lot of mistakes.
On to the next one, let’s hope for some Halloween magic in Ann Arbor next week.