After being the only remaining school in the Big Ten that had not yet lost to Rutgers in football or men’s basketball since the Scarlet Knights joined the Big Ten, Michigan State promptly did both this past year. Mel Tucker’s debut as head coach in East Lansing for the Spartans came against Rutgers and saw a seven-turnover debacle that led to an 11-point loss. With a lot of key returners coming back for that Rutgers squad, the Scarlet Knights feature at No. 7 in our rankings of most difficult opponents this upcoming season.
2020 Record: 3-6
The Scarlet Knights welcomed Greg Schiano back to Piscataway, New Jersey for the 2020 season and he quickly turned a corner with the program using the transfer portal. After snapping a 21-game conference losing streak against Michigan State in its season opener, Rutgers then dropped four-straight games. However, two were close games, including a 23-20 loss to Illinois and a triple-overtime loss to Michigan that was frustratingly within reach multiple times for the Scarlet Knights before then picking up a 37-30 win at Purdue the following week.
Rutgers lost 23-7 to Penn State, beat Maryland 27-24 in overtime in College Park, and then almost ended the season with a win over Nebraska in the “Big Ten Champions Week” contest before falling 28-21 late. Rutgers was up 14-7 at halftime, but the game was tied 21-21 at the end of the third quarter. Then the Scarlet Knights couldn’t find the end zone in the fourth quarter. Had Noah Vedral been healthy, the Cornhuskers may not have been able to get the road win. Schiano made sure Rutgers was competitive with teams not named Ohio State last season, though, in what was an incredible turn around in a challenging year for a coaching regime change.
Michigan State leads the all-time series with Rutgers 8-4, and is 6-1 in Big Ten action. The average margin of victory over Rutgers since the Scarlet Knights joined the conference is 27 points, and MSU has shut the Scarlet Knights out twice. Rutgers snapped a six-game losing streak in 2020 with a 38-27 victory in East Lansing, its first in Spartan Stadium since 1991 and third overall (the other being in 1988).
2021 Offensive Outlook
The Scarlet Knights offense took a huge step forward last season thanks in large part to Noah Vedral’s transfer from Nebraska to Rutgers. Vedral completed 136-of-221 passes for 1,253 yards and nine touchdowns last season. He added another 193 rushing yards and a score (on a 24-yarder against MSU) on the ground while averaging 206.6 yards of total offense per game, seventh-best in the Big Ten. Vedral’s 381 passing yards against Michigan is good for eighth-highest in a game in program history, and he ranked third in the Big Ten with a 61.5 completion percentage and third with 19.43 completions per game. Vedral will be back next season as the clear cut starter and will be a fifth-year senior.
Also back for the Scarlet Knights next season will be wide receivers Bo Melton (638 total receiving years) and Shameen Jones (378 yards) who led the team and were second respectively in receiving yards last season. Melton also led in catches (47), touchdowns (six), and average yards per reception for those with double-digit catches (13.6). Jones was third on the team in total catches (34), second in touchdowns (three), and second in average yards per reception (11.1).
At the running back position, Isaih Pacheco was the workhorse back for RU last season with 116 attempts for 515 yards at an average 4.4 yards per carry and three touchdowns.
Overall, the offense took a big leap forward at No. 8 last season in conference standings with 26.7 points per game, though the Scarlet Knights ranked No. 13 with 339.1 average yards per game of total offense.
2021 Defensive Outlook
The defense returns safety Christian Izien as a redshirt junior this fall. He was a 2020 All-Big Ten honorable mention selection (coaches and media). Izien led the Scarlet Knights with four interceptions on a unit that finished the season tied for fourth in the league with eight interceptions, though the team played two more games than Wisconsin who also had eight total. He also was second on the team in total tackles (65) and solo tackles (44).
Also back will be linebacker Olakunle Fatukasi who led the team in total tackles (90), along with solo tackles (45) and assisted tackles (45). Linebacker Tyshon Fogg also looks to be coming back and was third on the team in total tackles (63) and second in assisted tackles (36).
Overall the spring depth chart shows the defense will be made up of mostly upperclassmen, some of whom are taking advantage of the extra eligibility granted due to COVID-19. However, the unit as a whole was only 11th in scoring defense in the Big Ten last year after giving up an average of 32.1 points per game.
Why No. 7?
Honestly I may have ranked Rutgers even higher on this list after Schiano turned such a sharp corner last season and seems to continue building momentum with recruiting. However, the Scarlet Knights come into this one with a brutal stretch of Michigan (road) and Ohio State (home) before the Spartans visit SHI Stadium on Oct. 9. That is a nasty stretch prior to the Spartans’ visit, and Rutgers does still have a ways to go building out the roster before the team will have depth at key positions to weather injury risks and general “dings” you get going up against the Buckeyes. Michigan State, on the other hand, enters this matchup coming off a home game against Western Kentucky.
The Spartans should be able to avenge its seven-turnover debacle from last season in this one. It won’t be a 49-0 blowout, but MSU should be able to make sure it is at least a one-touchdown lead by the end of the fourth quarter and pick up a needed victory in the path to bowl eligibility before a tough two game stretch to finish out October.