While Michigan State heads into the final week of the regular season frustrated with where it stands, it’s nothing like what its opponent is dealing with.
The Spartans expected to be competing for the Big Ten East title. Instead, they’re looking to get a seventh victory and improve their bowl standing. For Rutgers, it might be the final week for coach Chris Ash, who has just seven victories total in almost three seasons.
After winning the season opener, the Scarlet Knights have lost 10 straight and the uncertainty about Ash’s future has become the big story line. However, Ash was in no mood for talking about his status during his weekly press conference Monday.
“I respect the question, but we're going to talk about Michigan State today,” Ash said when the first question of his presser addressed his job status.
A few minutes later, Ash was asked about potential staff changes at the end of the season.
“Guys, let's talk about Michigan State,” Ash said. “I mean, that's where we're at. That's my focus. We'll discuss the end of the season when the end of the season is here. Our focus is Michigan State.”
Things have not gone well at Rutgers for Ash, who was hired before the 2016 season after serving as defensive coordinator at Ohio State. The Scarlet Knights were 2-10 his first season and improved to 4-8 last year, but things have gone south in 2018.
However, Ash insisted he’s seen progress in the program, one that had played in a bowl game in four of the previous five season before Ash arrived.
“Again, I'm not going to worry about and talk about the future a whole lot here. I'm worried about Michigan State,” Ash said. “But there are so many improvements on the inside that people don't see day-to-day. I am very excited about our future, the culture that we've established. The character of the individuals that we have in this program, the chemistry that we have in this program, the true brotherhood that we have here. Those are all things internally that you have to have before the external results come.
“And I get it, everyone wants wins. I want wins too, I get it. But I came here to try to build from the inside out. I think that's what we're doing and that's where we're at. Do we need to make a big jump up? Absolutely we do.”
The numbers make it clear that results haven’t followed with what Ash believes is an improvement in culture. The Scarlet Knights are last in the Big Ten in scoring offense at 13.8 points a game and 13th in scoring defense, allowing 33 points a game.
There have been some relative bright spots, including ranking fourth in the conference in pass defense while keeping it close last week against Penn State before eventually losing, 20-7.
“Every loss hurts, whether it's by 50 or it's by 5, every loss hurts,” Ash said. “I am proud of the way that our players continue to work and fight and they continue to improve. That's where we're at. That's the circumstances that we are in.”
While a win in the season finale is the goal, Ash is still putting the focus on how his team plays and not worrying about how much longer he’ll be around.
“We've got to play cleaner football. We've got to take care of the football. We've got to try to score some points. We're focused on those things,” Ash said. “If we do those things, then wins will come, whether it be this Saturday or next year. Those are the things we have to focus on. We're not focused on, ‘Hey, we have to win against Michigan State.’ Do we want to? Absolutely. But we're focused on the things that allow us to try to get that done.”