The No. 11-ranked Michigan State Spartans bring a 5-0 record to Piscataway, New Jersey this weekend, but face a tough challenge against the Rutgers Scarlet Knights (3-2) at noon Eastern Time on Saturday (Big Ten Network).
To help give us some more perspective on Rutgers, we spoke with Aaron Breitman, managing editor for On the Banks (not of the Red Cedar) — SB Nation’s home for all news regarding Scarlet Knights.
Are Rutgers fans really that upset about the whole “Keep Chopping” thing? Is a potential mini rivalry brewing between Michigan State and Rutgers? Aaron provides thoughts on these questions and more.
1. As you are probably aware, Mel Tucker has used the “Keep Chopping” phrase as a mantra for the Michigan State program, similar to Greg Schiano and the Rutgers program. It appears that Rutgers fans, and perhaps Schiano himself, don’t appreciate MSU’s use of it. How big of a deal is this to Rutgers fans/football program?
Aaron: I love it. It seems like last season’s game really hit a sore spot with Michigan State. I know Tucker loves using cliches and catch phrases, but Rutgers doesn’t look at his use of “Keep Chopping” this season as random or unintentional as MSU fans imply that it is. Outsiders don’t appear to either, as CBS’ Adam Zucker threw a zinger at Tucker about it in a recent interview.
Tucker has done a good job of recruiting New Jersey and after last season’s loss, the idea that using something Schiano and Rutgers have since 2005 as a coincidence seems like fiction. The university even has “Keep Chopping” copyrighted for merchandising purposes.
I am all for this beef, and think at the end of the day it makes this annual matchup fun. It’s not a rivalry yet and I know MSU fans will probably scoff at the idea that it ever could become that, but this year’s game seems to have taken on more importance for both sides. Tucker, intentionally or not, raised the stakes by using a core mantra of the Rutgers program. Winning would give Tucker the upper hand and even more ammo on the recruiting trail in New Jersey.
Schiano was asked about it this week and simply explained how important it is to the program and he has often spoken about the origin of it. I know Tucker has coached with other programs that appear to have used Dr. Kevin Elko, who gave Schiano and the Miami coaching staff the metaphor back in 1999. I really don’t think Tucker meant anything at first by using, but I do think he probably was made aware of the issue from a Rutgers perspective at some point and just didn’t care. Like I said, I think it’s part of what makes college football fun and it’s a win-win for fans on both sides. Is it noon on Saturday yet?
2. Rutgers is off to a 3-2 start, but has lost back-to-back Big Ten games to Michigan and Ohio State, and was blown out at home by the Buckeyes last week. What do you make of this team so far, and how do you see the Scarlet Knights matching up with Michigan State?
Aaron: The season in a lot of respects has gone exactly as Rutgers fans would have hoped with a 3-2 start. Winning all three non-conference games was a must to have a viable path to a bowl game and they were able to accomplish that. The second half performance against Michigan was stunning and unexpected. It’s only year two of rebuilding under Schiano and it’s clear they’ve made significant progress faster than expected. However, giving Michigan all they could handle prematurely raised expectations that Rutgers could challenge Ohio State even though on paper that idea made zero sense.
At the end of the day, the loss to OSU was humbling, but also didn’t change the path ahead of them in hopes of having a successful season. There are winnable games remaining and the blueprint is simple: minimize mistakes with penalties and turnovers, while relying on strong play from the defense and special teams. I think Rutgers and Michigan State are similar in a lot of ways, but MSU has a better quarterback and better playmakers on offense. However, the Scarlet Knights will have confidence it can win and have an axe-sized chip on their shoulder, so I do expect them to give the Spartans their best.
3. How has quarterback Noah Vedral and the rest of the Rutgers offense looked so far? What do the Scarlet Knights do well, and what does the offensive unit need to improve upon?
Aaron: The offense has regressed since last season with the exact same personnel. What they do best is protect the football, as they didn’t commit their first turnover of the season until the final possession of the loss to Michigan. However, the wheels fell off against Ohio State with Vedral throwing his first three interceptions of the season. Which version of Vedral that shows up against MSU will have a huge impact on the outcome. How he manages the game and converts on third downs will be so important.
The offensive line was the biggest concern coming into the season and the coaching staff continues to mix and match personnel. They’ve been up and down this season, surprising at times and then falling completely flat other times. They lost multi-year starter Reggie Sutton for the year with an injury before the Michigan game. Now starting left tackle Raiqwon O’Neal is questionable to play Saturday after ending up in a boot during the OSU game. If Rutgers is unable to generate some momentum with the run game, particularly with running back Isaih Pacheco, they’re going to struggle on the offensive end.
This is not a big play offense, but their best playmaker, Bo Melton, is also questionable for this game after leaving against Ohio State with a shoulder injury. He is an All-Big Ten receiver who can is utilized in multiple ways. If he can’t go, Aron Cruickshank will be more of a focus and he has proven to be explosive at times. Other receivers like Shameen Jones, Isaiah Washington and Brandon Sanders would need to step up as well.
What Rutgers needs to do, and can do well, is short passes to Pacheco and receivers in space that allow them to utilize their speed. Slants in the middle of the field have worked well and they’ve been close to breaking big play on short passes to Pacheco out of the backfield that have the blocking set up well, but he’s dropped a few. One thing to keep an eye on is Vedral running with it on designed plays. He’s very effective in doing that and it usually sets up a successful pass play for big yardage soon after.
4. Defensively, what does Rutgers do well and who are the players to know on that side of the ball?
Aaron: The focus has been forcing takeaways, as MSU fans know well after forcing seven turnovers in their matchup last season. This season, Rutgers forced eight turnovers in the first three games and it really helped the offense starting with a short field often. The last two games, though, the defense has forced zero turnovers and that’s obviously a problem. However, they proved they could hold their own after forcing the Michigan offense into four consecutive three-and-outs to begin the second half. Stopping the run has been a concern, but the Scarlet Knights shut down what was then the top rushing attack in the country against Michigan.
Rutgers has tackled pretty well this season and the linebackers have been big in stopping the run. They can be a liability in the passing game and that’s a concern in this game. The secondary depth has been tested already with Max Melton and Chris Long out on suspensions. However, Christian Izien and Avery Young are one of the better safety duos in the Big Ten.
Schiano and defensive coordinator Robb Smith are going to be creative and give different looks, including playing two linebackers and five defensive backs at times. They don’t call specific blitzes too often because the defensive line has had some success in generating pressure up front. Limiting big run plays on first and second down is obviously a huge key in this game.
5. Given last year’s game where everything went wrong for Michigan State with seven turnovers, the “Keep Chopping” controversy, Tucker’s focus on recruiting in the state of New Jersey, etc., would you say Rutgers looks at Michigan State as somewhat of a rival, or that a potential rivalry is building up between the two programs? Why or why not?
Aaron: I don’t know if Rutgers or Rutgers fans look at Michigan State as rival, but as I said earlier, I think we could very much be on our way to a fun and healthy rivalry. I think Rutgers has more natural roots to a rivalry with Maryland and there is hope they can one day win enough to have one with Penn State. That being said, Rutgers and Michigan State have more history than most people on the outside probably realize. Beating the Spartans in 1988 and 2004 before even being in the Big Ten were two of the more notable wins for the program in modern history.
Winning last year, the arrival of Tucker and landing two four-star prospects immediately, followed by his insistence on the chop have certainly moved this matchup in a direction that can ultimately evolve into a rivalry. I think Rutgers winning on Saturday would help that more than Michigan State winning. Based on online chatter this week, it does appear MSU fans look at last year as a blip on the radar in a series they have dominated in recent years. A Rutgers win would negate that fact and pour more salt in the wound for the Spartan fan base.
Bonus: Score prediction? Do you see another seven-turnover debacle in Michigan State’s future (please say no)?
Aaron: No way that we see seven turnovers, but I think we see a spirited, tight battle that will come down to the end of the game. One thing I think will help Rutgers is they’ve had several tough games already. Syracuse isn’t great, but they won on the road in the dome and are coming off back-to-back games against Michigan and Ohio State. They are not going to be intimidated by Michigan State and beating them last season, although they are much improved, is going to give them confidence.
I think Rutgers will be focused and the defense in particular will bounce back to form the way they had played all season before the OSU game. Limiting mistakes is key for both sides and Rutgers will take risks in this game. The Scarlet Knights lead the Big Ten with 18 fourth-down attempts, and MSU has struggled stopping teams in those situations. I think that is a factor, and I think whichever team has the ball last probably wins it. A dramatic build up to the game ends in even more dramatic fashion as Valentino Ambrosio kicks a 40-plus yard field goal for a 24-23 victory for Rutgers.
A big thank you to Aaron for providing his incredibly thorough insights and analysis regarding the Scarlet Knights. You can follow Aaron on Twitter, and for more coverage on Rutgers, follow On the Banks as well.
If you are interested in reading my responses to Aaron’s question, check here.