Michigan State at Rutgers
Kickoff: Noon Saturday, SHI Stadium, Piscataway, N.J.
Records: Michigan State 4-6, 2-5 Big Ten; Rutgers 2-8, 0-7
Line: Michigan State by 20.5
View from the other side
James Kratch covers Rutgers for NJ Advance Media. He breaks down the Scarlet Knights for The Detroit News, answering five questions heading into Saturday’s Michigan State-Rutgers game at SHI Stadium. You can follow him on Twitter @JamesKratch.
► Question: How much do the Scarlet Knights take out of last week’s performance vs. Ohio State?
► Kratch: I believe it was definitely a confidence booster for the team. Most folks (myself included) thought Ohio State was going to cover the 52.5-point spread and threaten to add another ridiculously lopsided loss to Rutgers lore. (This is a program that has lost games 80-7 and 78-0 this century). But the Scarlet Knights played hard and were able to break the 20-point mark against a Big Ten/Power Five opponent for the first time in over two calendar years. Obviously Ohio State called off the dogs and two of those scores came against backups. But still. Rutgers was able to enjoy some small successes in a season that has been a wild nightmare, and it gives them some momentum heading into a game where, on paper, they should have much more of a chance.
► Question: MSU hasn’t won since September and is still trying to become bowl eligible. Is there motivation to put MSU out of its misery?
► Kratch: I think there is more motivation for Rutgers to win a Big Ten game, period. The Scarlet Knights’ 19-game conference losing streak is tied for the third-longest in Big Ten history. If they lose to the Spartans and lose to Penn State next weekend, it’ll be at 21 and they will have the second-longest in history, behind only the infamous teams from Northwestern’s dark ages. I don’t think Rutgers will get into that stratosphere — 38 straight Big Ten losses — but there are no guarantees a Big Ten win is coming quickly next season either when you look at the schedule. This is Rutgers’ best shot to win a Big Ten game and have something to hang its hat on going into the offseason.
► Question: Can the offense continue to build momentum against a suddenly ordinary MSU defense with a penchant for giving up the big play?
► Kratch: The Rutgers offense has slowly improved since interim head coach Nunzio Campanile took over six games ago. It still has its limitations and is not terribly potent, but it can spring a big play or two. The real key this week is going to be staying on schedule. Rutgers resembles a triple-option team in many ways. The Scarlet Knights have a chance if they can get to manageable third-down situations consistently. They just are not built for third-and-long. If they’re going to hit a deep ball, it’s often some form of a broken coverage or quarterback Johnny Langan making something happen with his legs to buy time. It would not shock me if Rutgers can get a few explosive runs out of its gun run game.
► Question: Does the Rutgers defense see this week as a chance to find something against an MSU team ranked 110th in the nation in scoring?
► Kratch: Here is the good news for Michigan State fans: Rutgers’ defense can make a lot of bad offenses look good. The Scarlet Knights don’t have much of a pass rush, they don’t stop the run well and they are a poor tackling team. In fact, I think the one way the Spartans can turn this into a blowout is they find the offensive production they had against Indiana and Illinois. And I can’t rule that out. The defense has been a major disappointment this year.
► Question: Who are some names to keep an eye on that can be the difference in a potential upset for Rutgers?
► Kratch: Running back Isaih Pacheco is the Scarlet Knights’ best offensive player. He is a legitimate starting back in the Big Ten and the focal point of the Rutgers offense. Langan has played better of late and he will need to protect the football if the Scarlet Knights are going to have a shot to upset Michigan State. Those are the guys who will determine whether or not Rutgers can make this happen.
Players to watch
► Johnny Langan, QB: The redshirt freshman piled up 310 yards of total offense in the victory over Liberty, the third Rutgers quarterback to go over the 300-yard mark this season. A dual-threat quarterback, Langan ran for 118 yards in the win over Liberty while throwing for a career-best 192 yards and two touchdowns to earn Big Ten Freshman of the Week honors after that victory. He had a 45-yard touchdown pass last week against Ohio State.
► Isaih Pacheco, RB: The sophomore leads the Scarlet Knights in rushing this season with 591 yards and seven touchdowns, four of those scores coming in the season-opening win over UMass. Pachecho ran for 107 yards in the win over Liberty, the second time this season and the fourth time in in his career he’s gone over the 100-yard mark. The former high school quarterback is 2-for-4 passing in his career with an interception.
► Damon Hayes, CB: The senior has played in 45 career games and has recorded six interceptions, 24 pass breakups and 155 tackles, while his 30 passes defended rank 27th in the nation among active players. After starting 12 games last season at safety, Hayes has made the move back to cornerback. Back in 2016, he returned an interception 55 yards for a touchdown against Minnesota.
Facts and figures
► Struggling to get stops: While the Scarlet Knights have struggled defensively this season ranking 110th in the nation, junior linebacker Tyshon Fogg ranks third in the Big Ten with 9.2 tackles per game. Even with Fogg’s play, Rutgers ranks last in the Big Ten in total defense (447.5 yards a game) and rushing defense (200.5 yards per game) while ranking 13th in passing defense (247 yards per game).
► Offensive woes: The Scarlet Knights have started three different players at quarterback this season, which has led to an inconsistent offense that is averaging only 15.3 points a game, which ranks 127th in the nation. Rutgers also ranks 11th in the Big Ten in rushing offense (133.8 yards per game), 13th in passing offense (141.6 yards a game) and last in total offense (275.4 yards a game).
► Upset minded: While Rutgers has yet to beat Michigan State in a Big Ten game, the Scarlet Knights have won three in the series, including a pair of upsets. The first was in 1988 when Rutgers beat the 15th-ranked and defending Rose Bowl champion Spartans, 17-13. The second came in 2004 when Rutgers opened the season with a 19-14 victory over MSU.