Michigan State simply collapsed. Following the collapse at Iowa two weeks ago, the hope was MSU might find itself over the bye. All they did was copy their blueprint from Iowa and run it out again against Rutgers.
The switch to Kaitin Houser may still pay dividends down the road, but in this game it was more of the same for the offense. This game had some highlights but the end results were ugly. This is how the major units and team graded out.
How the Grades Work: The “Game Specific Grade” is an attempt to step back and ignore who they are playing and look at the performance through the lens of just this game. The grade based “on a curve” is an attempt to take the performance and scale it based on the quality of the opponent.
Details of the Curve for this Game: Rutgers is good but not great. They have an offense run by a QB who often looks like he can’t throw accurately. Rutgers is battling to rise in the Big Ten and are a FAR cry from their walkover days, but still not the type of competition that should be giving Michigan State fits. This year that doesn’t seem true.
Offense: B- (Game Specific Grade) / C (On a curve based on competition)
The offense started the game with some fire. That opening drive gave hope that the switch to Kaitin Houser at QB was the key to a brand new offense. Unfortunately, much of the rest of the half looked like the same old anemic offense.
Just like Noah Kim, Houser was plagued by receiver drops. He also earned a new problem: receiver fumbles. Two turnovers by receivers combined with some very questionable throws by Houser and the offense got nothing going after the first drive. Their end of half touchdown was a gift from the otherwise terrible special teams.
The rest of the way featured more inconsistency.
The start of the second half saw the offense return to heavily featuring the run and mostly calling safe passes. Houser rose to the occasion but the drive was fueled by Nathan Carter and a surprisingly strong Jalen Berger. It’s inconceivable Jay Johnson refuses to ride the run game - particularly in a wet game like this.
Those decisions did not help Kaitin Houser at all. While the QB did not throw an interception in his first start objectively speaking he probably should have had one to three passes picked off by Rutgers.
MSU scored just two true offensive touchdowns (that third was really made possible by Rutgers fumbling a punt on the 4 yard line). It’s technically more than they were getting out of Noah Kim, but the offensive unit still had three turnovers.
Rutgers is not a powerhouse. Doing this poorly in this game is an indictment of the offense.
Houser looked steadier than Noah Kim but the results felt very familiar. At times Houser looked incredibly accurate while at others he threw balls that were head scratchers. In the first half, he got lucky two 50-50 balls did not end up as interceptions and a terrible throw that was intercepted by Rutgers got wiped off because of an offside call. The second half featured shaky moments as well including a pass that was in a Rutgers defenders hands that magically turned into a reception for the Spartans.
Houser should get more time to develop but these results look eerily familiar in a very bad way.
Defense: A- (Game Specific Grade) / B (On a curve based on competition)
The defense is the best unit on this team. That may not be saying much considering the disaster that is the special teams and the wildly inconsistent offense, still its important to note. The defense did almost everything it could to secure a win.
The first half they held Rutgers to three drives that all ended in field goal attempts (one of the three missed). That was impressive.
In the second half the defense essentially gave up two long drives. One after the special teams poked a hole in the very thin balloon of the team’s confidence by giving up a touch down on a fumbled punt. The clearly tired defense could not stop Rutgers. The second was the clock draining final drive. In between there was one blown play that Rutgers scored on a 21-yard run. That play I blame on the special teams who could not catch a kick off and let Rutgers just roll through the end of the game.
The defense did essentially everything you could reasonably ask of it. Include the two interceptions and this unit clearly did enough. The grade is an A minus because of the long scoring drive and on the curve it’s only a B because Rutgers is NOT an offensive juggernaut. The one knock on the defense is that as soon as the Rutgers QB stopped missing every single throw (for one stretch he was 3 of 13) he was able to largely pick apart the MSU pass defense in the 12-18 yard range. That is not a great performance.
But in a game with a feeling of very few highlights the defense still stands as the lone positive.
Special Teams: F (Game Specific Grade) / F (On a curve based on competition)
The first special teams play of the game with any consequence was MSU’s kick off after scoring. The play resulted in the kick rolling out of bounds and giving Rutgers strong starting field position. For a unit that has been suspect all season it’s the kind of start they dread. The kicking equivalent of the fair catch two games before.
Committing an illegal block in the back on the kick off return after the second field goal by Rutgers adds salt to the wound. They already had poor field position because of a weak run back. The penalty made it worse.
In the lone bright spot of the first half, the Spartans capitalized on the wet conditions to recover a muffed punt on the 11-yard line. It was great coverage that exploited a mistake by Rutgers. It also gave MSU a real lead in this game after the offense essentially turned into pumpkins after the first drive.
Converting a 38-yard field goal to end the first half fit perfectly with this year’s Jekyll and Hyde special teams.
The second half started much the same, before turning into a full on nightmare.
The offense had a great touchdown drive to open the half and go up 24-6. From there the special teams decided they would force the Spartans to lose.
The kickoff after the touchdown had the unit go offside. The re-kick wasn’t disastrous but it did give a few extra yards to Rutgers.
After a few quick possessions the special teams reared its ugly head again on a punt by lining up incorrectly. Even worse, the re-kick resulted in a fumble by the punter and a Rutgers touchdown on the recovery.
Adding insult to injury, after the defense let Rutgers march down the field and score a touchdown, the special teams made it worse. Tyrell Henry failed to catch the kickoff and Rutgers grabbed the ball instead. The next play resulted in the second Rutgers touchdown in three plays. At this point the game was over, we just didn’t fully know it yet.
After a three and out by the offense the special teams almost turned it over again on the punt. The luckiest roll in the history of the game turned that punt into something respectable.
For the second game in a row the special teams lost this game.
Coaching: C (Game Specific Grade) / C (On a curve based on competition)
Michigan State’s offense continues to make confounding decisions. The weather turned the end of the first half into a complete mess of turnovers. Instead of going back to the ground game that fueled the opening touchdown drive for the Spartans, Jay Johnson doubled down on the passing game.
Johnson briefly returned to the ground game as Michigan State’s offense drove for its second real offensive touchdown to make the game 24-6. After that, the ground game - and everything - failed, so it didn’t matter anymore.
The defense played well, though it did seem to need Rutgers QB to make mistakes and miss throws. The pressure was inconsistent but the game plan still sound enough.
The mistakes on special teams are at a fire-able level. It’s hard to fire someone mid season but the results in that unit are beyond unacceptable and clearly not improving.
Head coaching was a bit harder to decipher in this game except two areas. One is going for it on 4h down. This is the one hallmark of the Harlon Barnett era that can be banked on. The other is unfortunately this teams willingness to utterly collapse late.
For the second game in a row MSU controlled an opponent and still lost. The collapse in this game inconceivably felt even worse than at Iowa while feeling wholly unsurprising. Yes, the players are the pens getting run over, but the coaches have to take responsibility for what is emerging as a pattern.
Overall: C- (Game Specific Grade) / D+ (On a curve based on competition)
Michigan State showed some improvement in this game. Yet, it also essentially proved it is a terrible team. The Special Teams are the most obvious problem, but an offense that generates only two real scoring drives against a lower tier opponent is not going to cut it in the Big Ten.
The defense is trying to keep the team in games but still crumbling at key points. This deflating loss is the confirmation this is a lost season. Going into Michigan next week now feels like a death march rather than a fun, underdog rivalry game.