As bad as things are right now for Michigan State, the Spartans at least aren’t wading through a haze of uncertainty like Rutgers, this week’s opponent.
The Scarlet Knights’ only victory since the opening week of the season came at home against Liberty, when they were a home underdog. Otherwise, it’s been the usual run of ineptitude as Rutgers is winless in Big Ten play and fired coach Chris Ash back at the end of September.
So, as Michigan State linebacker Antjuan Simmons said after last week’s loss at Michigan, the fifth straight for the Spartans, things can only get worse.
But as Michigan State (4-6, 2-5 Big Ten) tries to find a way to become bowl eligible in an otherwise miserable season that has included multiple blowout losses, Rutgers is actually feeling good after losing to Ohio State, 56-21, last weekend.
“They competed for four quarters, all the things that we’re asking them to do, and I think that when you do that, you’re just going to get better,” interim head coach Nunzio Campanile told reporters after Rutgers managed 21 points against the No. 2 team in the country. “I’m really proud of the way the kids played and their belief in each other, the way they carried themselves today."
Even in defeat, Rutgers (2-8, 0-7) found the silver lining, something that is getting hard to do in East Lansing as the Spartans deal with the reality of being out of the championship hunt and, worse yet, not being competitive against the top teams in the conference.
For Rutgers, it’s been about small steps toward turning around the fortunes of a program that hasn’t had a winning season since 2014, its first in the Big Ten. At that point, the Scarlet Knights reached a bowl game in nine of 10 seasons, and now they’re looking to bring back the man who was at the helm for six of those appearances.
Reports are swirling that former Rutgers head coach Greg Schiano will take over in hopes the Scarlet Knights become competitive again, something they felt they were at times last week against Ohio State.
“I would say if there's anything, it's more on we've made some growth that I feel like we're ready to be more competitive than we were,” Campanile said about optimism heading into this week’s matchup with the Spartans. “We're a much better team, say, than we were when we played Indiana. So hopefully it’s more on our end.”
Still, Campanile understands Rutgers will be facing a desperate Michigan State team, one that as never lost to Rutgers since the Scarlet Knights joined the Big Ten.
“I still think they're a really talented team,” Campanile said. “They have some injuries on the offensive side, losing the middle linebacker (Joe Bachie) who is a really talented player. I think they're really good on the defensive line. Their linebackers really play hard and fast. They're a really physical team. I think the quarterback is a talented player, make plays. They have some gifted receivers.”
Those players, however, haven’t experienced a win since Sept. 28 against Indiana. Meanwhile, the Spartans have been blown out by Ohio State, Wisconsin, Penn State and Michigan while suffering a brutal fourth-quarter collapse against Illinois.
That schedule, Campanile believes, is a big reason for Michigan State’s struggles. However, he also believes the Scarlet Knights are in position to take advantage of a team that is reeling.
“I think they're a talented, physical team,” Campanile said. “They obviously played a really tough schedule. It's hard to win games in this league. They beat Indiana, who is a really good team. They went right down to the wire there with Illinois. I think they're a pretty talented football team.
“Really, hopefully we've made enough growth to be competitive and play hard and well on Saturday.”