Michigan State vs. Rutgers: View from other side
Ryan Dunleavy, who covers Rutgers for NJ.com, breaks down the Scarlet Knights for The Detroit News, answering five questions heading into Saturday’s Michigan State-Rutgers game. You can follow him on Twitter @rydunleavy.
Question: Rutgers had a nice stretch in the middle of conference play, winning three of four games. Even after two straight losses, is their optimism the program is headed in the right direction?
Answer: Absolutely. When you consider that Rutgers lost 15 straight Big Ten games from October 2015 through October 2017, then won three out of four, that’s marked improvement. Plus, the final scores against Michigan and Penn State were more competitive this season than last. But Rutgers — given its lack of depth and amount of young players on the field — is still susceptible to the stinker. The loss to Eastern Michigan in Week 2 really stained the season. And the inexplicable 41-0 loss to Indiana last week will have the coaches scratching their heads for a while. The only that really matters, though, is: Do recruits think it is headed in the right direction? The incoming class looks like a mixed bag.
Q. Can the Scarlet Knights find room to run against an MSU defense that got rolled by Ohio State but has been solid, otherwise?
A. That’s the key to a competitive game. Rutgers hasn’t thrown for more than 109 yards in any of the six games since Giovanni Rescigno took over as the starting quarterback (but is 3-3 in those games) and hasn’t thrown for 200 yards in a game all season. The offensive line is physical in run blocking but struggles in pass protection. And Rutgers’ three best playmakers (safely assuming Janarion Grant doesn’t play again due to injury) are running backs Gus Edwards, Robert Martin and Raheem Blackshear. That’s why this isn’t a kind matchup for Rutgers. Michigan State is too good on defense to be beaten by a one-dimensional attack. Penn State and Indiana played its safeties about 10 yards from the line of scrimmage and stacked the box. Expect Michigan State to do the same.
Q. Giovanni Rescigno is a local guy that many MSU fans might recognize. Does he have a firm grasp on the job heading into the offseason?
A. No firm grasp, but he is used to that. It fits his underdog, blue-collar mentality. Rescigno came out of nowhere to start the final five games last season, kept the job through spring camp and then lost it to late graduate transfer Kyle Bolin. He was No. 3 on the early-season depth chart. But, sure enough, he reclaimed the job after the bye week. Now, he is not even a lock to start the season finale. Most fans want to see true freshman quarterback Johnathan Lewis make his first career start as a glimpse of the future. No matter who starts this weekend, the offseason will be a battle between Rescigno, Lewis and any other newcomers.
Q. Michigan State hasn’t run the ball consistently but is coming off 271 yards against Maryland. What’s the key for Rutgers slowing that down?
A. Rutgers has been inconsistent stopping the run. Washington and Maryland had under 100 yards, and Penn State’s Saquon Barkley had no room to operate. But Michigan, Purdue and Nebraska combined for more than 900 total rushing yards against Rutgers. If Rutgers is going to slow down Michigan State’s rushing attack, the key is for interior linemen like Sebastian Joseph, Jon Bateky and Will Previlon to hold blocks and free up 100-tackle linebackers Trevor Morris and Deonte Roberts to make plays. The secondary has to be active in run defense, too. Safety Saquan Hampton — the best tackler in the secondary — is back after a four-game injury absence.
Q. With a bowl game almost certainly out of the picture, where does Rutgers draw motivation and what must it do to pull off the upset?
A. Chris Ash was very clear: He wants to build momentum going into the offseason. A season-ending three-game losing streak— especially if it’s three straight blowouts — are going to tune up the “Same Old Rutgers” storylines. So Ash is going to coach to win, rather than coach to evaluate young players like it’s a 2018 preseason game. Will the seniors be motivated? That’s always the question. If they have one eye on NFL training or personal goals, the game could get ugly. But Ash— who doesn’t give out compliments easily — credits this senior class (his second) with really buying into his message when others might not have and making changes after last season. The effort last game was alarming. Still, I can’t see the seniors mailing it in twice in a row. But any upset formula involves Rutgers playing with the lead. A 10-point deficit feels insurmountable the way Rutgers plays offense, chewing up the clock and turning the game over to defense and special teams.
SCARLET KNIGHTS TO WATCH
■ Giovanni Rescigno, QB: The former standout at Warren De La Salle has started the last six games and has led the Scarlet Knights to three of their four victories. He’s thrown just one interception in his last 152 passing attempts, which spans nine games into last season. The overall numbers from the junior haven’t been terribly impressive as he’s only thrown for more than 100 yards twice this season, but he’s getting wins for the Scarlet Knights and showed last season that he can be productive, throwing for more than 200 yards three times.
■ Gus Edwards, RB: The fifth-year senior leads the Scarlet Knights with 703 rushing yards and seven touchdowns while ranking 10th in the Big Ten at 4.39 yards a carry. He ran for 109 yards in a victory over Maryland and his 74-yard touchdown run against Purdue was the longest by a Rutgers player in Big Ten play. Edwards leads a rushing attack that is averaging 4.9 yards a carry as four different backs have combined for 13 total rushing touchdowns.
■ Trevor Morris, LB: The junior is tied for the team lead with 99 tackles this season, which ranks fourth in the Big Ten. He’s also fourth in the conference averaging nine tackles a game while his 10.4 stops a game in Big Ten play ranks third. Morris led or tied for the team lead in tackles in eight games and has 3.5 tackles for loss as well as a pass breakup.
FACTS AND FIGURES
■ Flip the script: Michigan State has a chance to reverse its record from a season ago as a win would make the Spartans 9-3 after going just 3-9 in 2016, and would give coach Mark Dantonio’s his seventh season of nine wins or more. It would also give the Spartans 48 victories in the last five seasons after they won 36 in the first three years of that stretch. Michigan State has already locked up a bowl berth, the 10th in Dantonio’s 11 seasons leading the Spartans.
■ Moving up: Junior running back LJ Scott moved into 12th-place on Michigan State’s all-time rushing list after gaining 147 yards on 29 carries last week against Maryland. He now has 2,424 career rushing yards and is tied for 13th in touchdowns with 24 and is 14th in carries with 494.
■ Getting it done: Five of Michigan State’s six Big Ten victories have been by one score. Since the beginning of the 2010 season, Michigan State is 25-12 in games decided by one score or less, including all four of its bowl victories. Before this season’s triple-overtime loss to Northwestern, none of the losses had been by more than four points.