After a wild first few weeks of the 2023 season, Michigan State finally got a chance to exhale during Week 6. With the bye week out of the way, all attention can now focus on this week’s opponent - Rutgers.
The luckiest athletic department in the saga of conference realignment, Rutgers is finally looking better than their reputation as a Big Ten doormat would show. The Scarlet Knights sit 4-2, and Greg Schiano has outlasted Mel Tucker, earning the (entirely made up) golden axe as the only program in the conference that can use “Keep Chopping” as motivation.
Their Season So Far
Rutgers has put together a solid first half of their season, already piling up 4 wins. Their schedule hasn’t been quite as pillowy soft as other Big Ten schools, with 2 of their wins coming against Power 5 competition. Yes, those were against a Northwestern team in turmoil in their opener, and a Virginia Tech squad that has fallen from grace in a big way. Their 2 gimme games were against Temple and Wagner, where they outscored their opponents a combined 88-10.
Their losses? Two road games against traditional Big Ten powers Michigan and Wisconsin.
In Ann Arbor, they hung with the Wolverines for the first half, trailing 14-7 at halftime. After the half, Michigan woke up, scoring 17 unanswered in the second half. That Scarlet Knights offense that would score 52 against Wagner the next week was completely neutered by that team down the road.
At Camp Randall, Rutgers turned in a mirror image of their trip to Ann Arbor, letting the Badgers get a comfortable lead in the opening half before scoring 13 in the second half to barely cover the 13 point spread in their 24-13 loss.
While it’s certainly not the sharp contrast that Iowa presented a couple weeks ago, Rutgers’ strength is definitely on the defensive side of the ball. Head Coach Greg Schiano addressed his program’s offensive struggles by bringing a new offensive coordinator for 2023, Kirk Ciarrocca. Ciarrocca came to Piscataway from Minnesota, where he spent 2022 in his second stint with PJ Fleck’s Golden Gophers. He was Penn State’s OC in 2020, and had previously been on Fleck’s staffs at Western Michigan and Minnesota, beginning in 2013.
Ciarrocca’s reputation for developing quarterbacks is strong - He’s developed Tanner Morgan, Zach Terrell, Joe Flacco, and others. His newest project, Gavin Wimsatt, is proving to be a challenge, and as noted in TOC’s conversation with our Rutgers counterpart, frustration is mounting.
Wimsatt, a third year player and first year full time starter, is a 6’3 225 lb Kentuckian who specializes in frustrating the Scarlet Knight faithful. Wimsatt hasn’t cleared the 200 passing yard hurdle, topping out at 198 against Temple. He’s thrown 2 interceptions on the season, one in each of the losses at Michigan and Wisconsin. Against the Badgers, that interception could not have come at a worse time, throwing a pick 6 deep in the red zone that essentially sealed the ballgame before halftime. Wimsatt is reasonably mobile, and has scored 4 rushing touchdowns so far. His decisionmaking is questionable - MSU should be aggressive and force him into mistakes, because they’ll come.
Rutgers’ running game is led by Kyle Monangai, who is the top tailback on the roster. Wimsatt is the second leading rusher, but there’s an enormous dropoff. Ja’Shon Benjamin is the second back, and Aaron Young sees some touches.
At receiver, JaQuae Jackson and Christian Dremel are the clear top 2 in terms of yardage and targets, but Ian Strong has a size advantage that Rutgers has not properly utilized up to this point. Johnny Langan sees a decent number of targets at tight end.
In general, Rutgers’ offense is not particularly scary. Not on Iowa’s level of not scary, but a country mile away from what Washington did to this team.
Greg Schiano is a defensive coach at heart, and you can see that image in the Rutgers defense. The unit, led by Joe Harasymiak, is 4th in the Big Ten in points allowed so far this season. That number is certainly boosted by those Temple and Wagner games, but still impressive for a program that has been a doormat since joining the Big Ten in 2014. Like Ciarrocca on the offensive side of the ball, Harasymiak was plucked from PJ Fleck’s staff in Minnesota. Prior to that, he was the head coach at Maine, leading the Black Bears to the FCS semifinals in his final season there.
Linebacker Tyreem Powell leads the team in total tackles, and he’s forced a fumble. Fellow linebacker Mohamed Toure are the primary threats in the pass rush, leading the team in hurries and sacks respectively. Powell has a pair of sacks on the season as well.
In the defensive backfield, Flip Dixon and Robert Longerbeam are almost identical statistically, both with an interception and a sack on the season. Shaquan Loyal is also one to watch, as he’s a takeaway threat.
Katin Houser, in what’s expected to be his first start, will have his hands full.
How worried should we be?
It’s going to be a close game. The weather could be gross and damp. MSU’s offense needs to overcome the challenge that the Rutgers defense is going to present. Their performance against Power 5 defenses has been abysmal, and things don’t get easier with Rutgers. Defensively, MSU has been playing better when the offense hasn’t put them in impossible situations. Gavin Wimsatt is mistake-prone, and if MSU can force him into uncomfortable situations, the Spartans may keep the total low enough to win.
Rainy Piscataway may be the perfect setting for a breakout performance.