Michigan State traveled to New Jersey to take on the Rutgers Scarlet Knights. The game came after a relatively low profile bye week that many hoped would allow the Spartans to find a better path forward.
The bye week did give the team the chance to bring in a new starting quarterback. The problem is the results looked very similar.
This game clearly answered a lot of questions - some we had hoped to never even ask. It may leave us with only a few questions, like: can this team ever win a game again this season?
Let’s review how we get to that question.
Questions Coming Into the Game:
How many players will enter the transfer portal during the bye week?
Three. That is shocking. If there is something Harlon Barnett can be credited for it’s keeping this team together. The Mel Tucker situation opened this team up to falling apart and a wave of transfers. Some of the most heralded young guys could red shirt for the year and transfer out with four years of eligibility remaining. That did not happen.
Even after the collapse at Iowa only three total players have announced transferring out, two prior to Iowa and only one during the bye week. Each of the transfers have reasons that are not as simple as, “this program is screwed.”
Barnett announced any player that entered the transfer portal would be considered off the team. That hard line and direct player engagement seems to have worked a miracle. Even if only for this season, the outcome should go down in unexpected achievements.
Which QB will start at Rutgers and how will that choice be justified?
Katin Houser. It was the worst kept secret in college football. Two hours before game time it was confirmed the red shirt freshman was formally being given the reins to the team.
While a segment of the Twitterverse (that thing now called X) has been claiming for months that Houser is “Him” (aka god level talent). The early returns in spot duty had not exactly proved them correct - nor did the clearly lukewarm feelings of the coaching staff.
On the first drive of the game Houser made a statement. With Offensive Coordinator Jay Johnson mixing in a healthy amount of runs and relatively simple pass combinations the offense marched the length of the field and scored. The early return in comparison to the increasingly erratic Noah Kim over the previous three games made this a clearly justifiable move.
The problem was the rest of the game. The question is still open if Houser is the answer in the near to long term.
Can the defense continue its recent run of good play?
The opening drive of the game left the defense digging out of a field position hole given to them by a kick off that rolled out of bounds. Despite this, and a surprisingly soft approach to the run, the Spartan defense adopted a bend don’t break approach. Once they could force Rutgers into throwing the ball they stopped dead and were forced into a field goal.
Over the first three drives MSU’s defense seemed set to let Rutgers gain a ton of yards but force them into field goal attempts.
Ending the rain soaked first half with two interceptions saved this game from an offense that was doing almost nothing.
The second half the defense was again put in bad field position over and over again. Minus one sustained scoring drive and the final clock draining drive, Rutgers struggled to gain much yardage over the defense. Despite MSU’s defense’s clear limitations, it is still the best unit on the team this year.
Can Michigan State stop turning the ball over?
Nope. After Michigan State’s offense was bailed out by the refs on a third and long early in the 2nd quarter, MSU’s next two pass plays featured a 50-50 ball that Glover tipped twice before catching; then immediately Alante Brown caught a ball and fumbled it for a turnover. Houser got lucky the 50-50 ball didn’t turn into a pick-six. On the next play the pass over the middle was completed but still turned into a turnover.
Even after the refs saved MSU with a (admittedly strange) targeting call that changed a later turnover on downs into a 15-yard penalty moving the Spartan offense into the red zone, MSU found ways to turn the ball over. Montore Foster got absolutely leveled in wet ball conditions, and coughed the ball up to Rutgers.
Two special teams turnovers saw Michigan State not only continue to turn the ball over they got more creative in how they did it. The kick off return that Tyrell Henry let bounce and a Rutgers’ grab in the air instead of him was particularly (sadly) creative.
Add in a bad Houser interception that got wiped off due to a defensive false start and at least two more passes that very clearly could have been interceptions and you have a continuing image of a team dedicated to turning off the ball.
Can Michigan State limit its penalties?
A solid no. MSU had less penalties in the first half overall but they still came at damaging times. An illegal block in the back on a kickoff return pinned MSU on their own 6 yard line. Late in the half, a blind side block on Chance Rucker’s interception moved the Spartans back near mid field rather than knocking on the door of the red zone. Following that up with a delay of game on the next snap is the definition of unforced error.
The second half had so many other problems that penalties became less of the story. Even with the total yardage on penalties being lower there is still a lot of room for improvement.
Which version of the special teams will show up?
The bad version. The absolutely horrible, no good, absolutely awful version. Yes, the special teams recovered a Rutgers muffed punt on the 4-yard line that turned into a touchdown on the next play. Ignore that. That was Rutgers making a mistake. With the exception of a nice Jonathan Kim 38-yard field goal, every other time the special teams unit took the field bad things happened.
READ MORE: The Grades After the Rutgers Debacle
Questions During the the Game
What advantages does Katin Houser bring to the offense?
Katin Houser’s bigger frame does seem to bring a new element to the offense: running. Noah Kim was starting to flash a bit of speed and elusive ability, but his slender frame made it look terrifying, and worse unsustainable. Katin Houser has a bit more standard Big Ten QB build and he showed it with some designed runs up the gut. Rutgers looked unprepared for these calls and Houser was able to turn them into some key gains - including the second touchdown of the game at the end of the first half.
Beyond that… Houser looked eerily similar to Kim as he went from pinpoint accuracy and level headed play to some truly mystifying throws. In an even worse reality, Houser ends the game with 3 interceptions. Instead he got lucky a few times.
What is the problem with MSU receivers?
A popular name for an interim coach during the initial flurry of Mel Tucker news was the wide receiver coach for MSU, Courtney Hawkins. Considering MSU’s receivers are dropping passes left and right that simply seems odd in hindsight. Noah Kim was plagued by drops by the receivers and Houser seems to be facing the same problem.
That said there are some bright spots in the young receivers. An example was Glover tipping the ball twice before catching it was impressive early in the 2nd quarter.
Then again the receivers also gave up two fumbles in the game. So there is clearly a larger problem then just the QB.
What was going on with the referees in this game?
Late in the first half the referees seemed to lose the plot of this game. While many of the calls benefited MSU, it still looked messy. MSU benefited from more than a few helpful (and borderline) pass interference calls. They also benefited from a roughing the passer penalty called on a defender who clearly had lost control and was falling down. Further, a frankly bizarre targeting call transformed a turnover on downs to MSU’s offense being moved 15 yards into the red zone.
Add in the late game weirdness with the clock and it felt like Rutgers got the opposite of home field advantage with the refs.
Does the rain make this a “mulligan” game for Katin Houser?
Weather played a serious role in this game. The chaos that was the final four minutes of the first half was clearly aided by the ultra wet conditions. It also coincided with Katin Houser looking a lot shakier. It’s going to be hard to get an accurate read on Houser in his first two weeks. This game was a rain soaked mess and the next game is against Michigan. Neither are really fair tests for a new QB with this year’s roster.
Why is Michigan State closing out games like a terrible team?
Michigan State has found ways to lose this year. They’ve been blown out (Washington) and they’ve collapsed late (Iowa). This game through most of three quarters looked like the Spartans had figured some of their problems out. Still the close of the third quarter into the 4th quarter saw MSU make losing mistakes (the punt fumble that gave Rutgers a touchdown) and Rutgers offense find a rhythm and score their first offensive touchdown.
From there the wheels came off. The special teams again screwed up as Tyrell Henry failed to come up and catch the kick off and Rutgers grabbed it out of the air. On the next play Rutgers ran through the entire defense into the endzone. The game was over from there.
Blame it on coaching. Blame it on conditioning. Blame it on the players. This is the type of end of game focus that defines terrible teams. And Michigan State is officially a terrible team this year.
What Is the Outlook for This Team After This Game?
Bleak. Very, very bleak. Michigan State has shown no sign it can play with the upper tier of the Big Ten and it has all three of those powerhouses left on the schedule. Worse, Michigan State has shown amazing creativity in gutting their chance to win against more evenly matched opponents. This moment in the season has the feel of floating through the air after jumping the tracks a ways back. It’s already off the rails, the hard landing is still coming - and that’s hard to stomach.
Questions for Next Week
- What can Katin Houser do against Michigan to prove he is the guy long term? Or does next week become a mulligan too?
- Will Michigan State fire its Special Teams coach? Or will there be signs of improvement?
- Will Jim Harbaugh bother being his normal terrible self in the leadup to the rivalry game?
- Can Michigan State’s offense score an actual touchdown against Michigan?
- Does this year feel like the most lopsided rivalry matchup for these two teams in the 21st century?
- Will the Michigan game actually show us anything about Michigan State?
- Is it basketball season yet?