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Game Preview: Michigan State Spartans versus Rutgers Scarlet Knights

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Rutgers v Michigan State Photo by Rey Del Rio/Getty Images

The undefeated and No. 11-ranked Michigan State Spartans head east to New Jersey to take on the Rutgers Scarlet Knights on Saturday in what will be MSU’s first Big Ten East Division contest of the season, and third conference game of the year overall. The Spartans enter the game with a perfect 5-0 record, including a 2-0 mark in Big Ten play, while the Scarlet Knights currently sit at 3-2, including an 0-2 record in the Big Ten. The game is set to kick off at 12:01 p.m. Eastern Time and can be watched on the Big Ten Network.

The Scarlet Knights are no longer the joke of the Big Ten, and are a more competitive program now in head coach Greg Schiano’s second stint in Piscataway. Rutgers will force Michigan State to grind out a hard-fought win with tough defense and aggressive play-calling on offense. Rutgers shocked Michigan State last season in the 2020 opener in East Lansing, as the Spartans turned the ball over seven times and lost 38-27. MSU has not forgotten about it, either.

Additionally, it is Rutgers’ homecoming game, and there is also the whole drama with the “Keep Chopping” phrase, as both programs use the mantra, but Rutgers seems to feel that Mel Tucker and Michigan State have stolen it (granted, Rutgers used it first, but the phrase was around well before Schiano adopted it).

Expect a physical, tough game from both programs on Saturday. But for now, let’s get into the preview.

Tale of the Tape

Michigan State:
2021 Record — 5-0 (2-0 in Big Ten)

2021 Offense (per game averages) — 466.6 total yards, 255.8 passing yards, 210.8 rushing yards

2021 Defense (per game averages) — 429.2 total yards allowed, 308.8 passing yards allowed, 120.4 rushing yards allowed

2021 Cumulative Points Scored: 189 (37.8 ppg)

2021 Cumulative Points Allowed: 103 (20.6 ppg)

Current SP+ Ranking: 24th

Rutgers:
2021 Record — 3-2 (0-2 in Big Ten)

2021 Offense (per game averages) — 350.2 total yards, 202.2 passing yards, 148 rushing yards

2021 Defense (per game averages) — 318.4 yards allowed, 186.6 passing yards allowed, 131.8 rushing yards allowed

2021 Cumulative Points Scored: 149 (29.8 ppg)

2021 Cumulative Points Allowed: 106 (21.2 ppg)

Current SP+ Ranking: 62nd


Series History/All-Time Records

All-time head-to-head record: Michigan State leads 8-4 (6-1 in Big Ten play)
Current streak: Rutgers with a one-game winning streak
Last Michigan State Win: Nov. 23, 2019
Last Rutgers Win: Oct. 24, 2020
Michigan State all-time record: 715-470-44 (.600)
Rutgers all-time record: 660–676–42 (.494)


Uniform Watch:

Nothing too fancy this week, as the Spartans go with a more traditional look of the green helmets with a white Spartan head logo, white tops with green lettering and numbering, and white cleats with green accents.

A closer look at this week’s threads:

Rutgers is yet to unveil its uniform for Saturday, but unless the Scarlet Knights want to do something special for homecoming, we should probably expect the usual scarlet/red helmets and tops with white pants.

Update: All scarlet for Rutgers.


Previous Game Results

Michigan State 48, Western Kentucky 31

Although the final score made it look somewhat more competitive, make no mistake, Michigan State thoroughly dominated Western Kentucky for the majority of this game. The Spartans took a 42-16 lead into halftime, marking the first time MSU scored 40 points or more in the first half of a football game since 2014 against Wyoming. The Spartans mostly coasted through the second half of the game, as the Hilltoppers outscored MSU 15-3, but the team did what it needed to do to beat a WKU team with a highly-potent offense.

There are certainly some things to clean up defensively, as Michigan State gave up 560 total yards, including 488 passing yards, but WKU’s Bailey Zappe threw the ball 64 times and that offense puts up a lot of yardage every week. While MSU continued to play a “bend-but-don’t-break” defense, the Spartans were often able to hold the Hilltoppers to red zone field goals instead of touchdowns.

Payton Thorne threw for 327 yards and had two total touchdowns, while Kenneth Walker III had 126 rushing yards and three touchdowns. Michigan State compiled 519 total yards as a team.

Ohio State 52, Rutgers 13

Yeah, this one did not go well for the Scarlet Knights. I don’t really know what to make of this result, though. Rutgers is supposed to be improved, but this game showed it still has a long way to go, but Ohio State does this to just about everybody (except Oregon, apparently). The Buckeyes jumped out to a 24-0 lead in the first quarter before the Scarlet Knights found the end zone on a 75-yard touchdown pass from Noah Vedral to Aron Cruickshank. Ohio State would then pour on 28 unanswered points before Rutgers finally found in the end zone again in garbage time in the fourth quarter.

OSU quarterback C.J. Stroud threw for 330 yards and five touchdowns, while the Buckeyes out-gained the Scarlet Knights 541 yards to 346 yards. Uncharacteristically for the squad, Rutgers also turned the ball over three times.


Key Matchups

Payton Thorne/Michigan State wide receivers versus Rutgers’ secondary: The Scarlet Knights are very strong against the pass, ranking 32nd in the nation with 186.6 yards allowed per game allowed. However, the Scarlet Knights are already down a couple of defensive backs, as Max Melton and Chris Long are out due to suspensions, and Melton in particular is a key player for Rutgers’ secondary. Thorne, Jayden Reed, Jalen Nailor and Tre Mosley will need to find success in the passing game if Michigan State wants to win, and that means sustaining drives, protecting the football and of course scoring points.

Aron Cruickshank versus Ronald Williams or Chester Kimbrough: Wide receiver Bo Melton could be out for the Scarlet Knights with a shoulder injury. If so, Cruickshank will become the main focus for the Michigan State secondary, and he is a big time playmaker for Rutgers. As mentioned above, he had a 75-yard touchdown against Ohio State last week, and did most of his damage on the play after the catch. He is also dangerous in the return game, as he was an All-Big Ten first-team selection returner in 2020. Whoever is assigned to Cruickshank on a given play — Williams, Kimbrough or even true freshman Charles Brantley — can’t let him get loose. It would be nice to see MSU tighten up its pass defense this week.

Kenneth Walker III/MSU offensive line versus Rutgers front seven: The battle of the trenches on the ground between Michigan State’s offense and Rutgers’ defense could be the deciding factor in the game. This is strength-on-strength, as Michigan State ranks 24th in FBS with 210.8 rushing yards per game, while Rutgers ranks in the top-60 nationally in rushing defense, allowing 131.8 yards per game. This might be the toughest run defense the Spartans have seen since Nebraska. Controlling the ground game, and the clock, will go a long way in determining the winner here, and Walker is going to need to have another solid game.


Game Info

Time: Noon Eastern
TV Channel: Big Ten Network
Location: SHI Stadium, Piscataway, New Jersey
Weather expectations: Cloudy with high of 68 degrees, winds blowing east at 10-to-12 miles per hour.
Line: Michigan State -5.5


Overview:

Both teams are dealing with some injuries, and although neither coach gave too many details about the status of certain players, I think it’s safe to assume defensive end Drew Beesley, running back Elijah Collins and others will be out for Michigan State. Linebacker Cal Haladay will also miss the first half of Saturday’s game after he was called for a questionable targeting penalty in the second half of last week’s contest against Western Kentucky. Meanwhile for Rutgers, we already mentioned that wide receiver Bo Melton — arguably the team’s biggest playmaker on offense — is questionable for Saturday’s game with a shoulder injury, but starting left tackle Raiqwon O’Neal is also questionable after ending up in a walking boot during the Ohio State game. As also already mentioned, Rutgers will also be down a couple defensive backs in Max Melton and Chris Long (suspensions).

Rutgers has a tough defense, allowing 20 points or less in every game so far this season beside last week’s game against Ohio State (52 points allowed). As mentioned previously, the Scarlet Knights also rank 32nd against the pass (186.6 yards per game allowed) and 60th against the run (131.8 yards per game allowed). While Michigan State comes in with an explosive offense, averaging nearly 38 points per game, and ranking 23rd in the country in total offense with an average of 466.6 yards per game, the Scarlet Knights are going to make the Spartans work for everything in this game.

However, Rutgers struggles offensively. RU ranks at No. 91 nationally in passing offense, at just 202.2 yards per game, and ranks No. 81 in the rushing game with 148 yards per game on average. While Rutgers dropped 61 points on Temple and 45 points on FCS foe Delaware, it has not scored more than 17 points against Power Five teams. With that said, the Scarlet Knights are aggressive and aren’t afraid to go for it on fourth down with 18 attempts through five games, which is amongst the highest in both the Big Ten and FBS, so the MSU defense will need to be alert.

Overall, I think this will be a close game for three-plus quarters. Both of these teams protect the football (both are plus-five in turnover margin). Rutgers’ defense is going to make it hard on Michigan State, and the Scarlet Knights might be using this whole “Keep Chopping” thing as fuel. However, Michigan State is looking to avenge last season’s upset loss, and appears to have the more talented team overall. I think MSU finds a way to break free in the fourth quarter and earns a hard-fought victory, but Rutgers won’t make it easy.

For additional information on Rutgers, check out our “Get to Know the Opponent” piece, or read our Q&A with On the Banks — SB Nation’s website for all things Scarlet Knights. For my responses to On The Banks’ questions, read here.

Poll

Who wins the "Keep Chopping" bowl?

This poll is closed

  • 87%
    Michigan State
    (172 votes)
  • 12%
    Rutgers
    (24 votes)
196 votes total Vote Now