PREVIEW: Two winless conference teams in MSU and Rutgers search for first Big Ten win
State News football beat writer Nathaniel Bott (Twitter: @Nathaniel_Bott) breaks down what to expect from MSU-Rutgers, gives an injury report and offers his prediction for the contest.
On Saturday, East Lansing and Spartan Stadium will host the battle of the bottom in the Big Ten as MSU (2-7, 0-6 Big Ten) gets a visit from Rutgers University (2-7, 0-6 Big Ten). The game kicks off at noon, and will end with one side getting their first conference win of the season.
MSU has been in the midst of one of the worst stretches the football program has ever seen. After a College Football Playoff appearance, their seven game skid has head coach Mark Dantonio searching for answers to the same questions he faced following the Spartans' first defeat.
"It's amazing when you really take it into context where we're at right now compared to where we were at last year, but that's reality and reality sets in on you,” Dantonio said. “I think to do that we all have to be accountable for what's going on. It starts with me and permeates throughout our football team. With that we have to stay upbeat and optimistic.”
MSU is 2-0 against Rutgers under Dantonio, but the Scarlet Knights made last season’s game close, a 31-24 loss at the hands of the Spartans.
OUT: WR Janarion Grant (ankle), LB Greg Jones (neck), DL Quanzell Lambert (knee), LB Najee Clayton (personal).
QUESTIONABLE: RB Josh Hicks (personal), DB Kiy Hester (leg) OL J.J. Denham, DB Lawrence Stephens, RB Robert Martin, DB Ronnie James (all undisclosed injuries).
OUT: QB Brian Lewerke (leg), CB Vayante Copeland (foot), LB Jon Reschke (ankle).
QUESTIONABLE: DE Malik McDowell (foot), OT David Beedle (arm), TE Jamal Lyles (disciplinary), OT Dennis Finley (leg) S Montae Nicholson, S Khari Willis, WR Monty Madaris, S Kenney Lyke, DL Kyonta Stallworth, OT Kodi Kieler, CB Drake Martinez (all undisclosed injuries)
PROBABLE: QB Tyler O’Connor (head)
WHAT TO EXPECT
MSU football has had a different starting lineup in every game this season on both offense and defense and will likely continue that trend this week. One spot in question lays at quarterback, where junior Damion Terry, who performed admirably last week against Illinois, could get the start over banged up fifth-year senior Tyler O’Connor.
“He has had limited experience throughout the last couple seasons, but really that was the first time that he came in and had to be the guy,” MSU quarterbacks coach Brad Salem said. “I think Damion is ready and that's what you're supposed to do as a backup quarterback when you're called upon and it was great to see him to take drive and go on a lead in the fourth quarter.”
Junior running back Gerald Holmes and senior wide receiver R.J. Shelton both had solid performances against Illinois and will look to continue that against the Scarlet Knights. Shelton leads the team in receptions (44), receiving yards (678) and receiving touchdowns (five). Holmes attributes his serviceable game to running “angry.”
The offensive line, after turning in their best game against Michigan two weeks ago, took a step back against the Illini. Shuffling along the line has been a constant this year, but young players like Cole Chewins, Tyler Higby and Thiyo Lukusa have gotten a plethora of experience.
MSU junior linebacker Chris Frey has been MSU’s best tackler, leading the team with a career-high 73 tackles, and perhaps their most durable too. Current starting linebackers Riley Bullough and Ed Davis have been dealing with injuries all season, but are now back and healthy.
“Chris will do whatever he can for the Spartan Dawgs, there's no doubt about it,” co-defensive coordinator Mike Tressel said. “He's a sellout guy. If we had 105 guys that sold out like him, the talent level wouldn't even matter, to be honest with you. You love that about him. He'll do whatever it takes, and he loves the game, and that something we're talking about right now.”
MSU has been devastated with injuries, most recently Copeland’s broken foot. MSU would like to have guys like McDowell and Nicholson back, but the next guy up mentality has been with MSU all year if they are unable to go.
MSU has been poor in third-down defense, though it has improved the past two weeks. They rank last in the Big Ten with just seven sacks (next lowest is Rutgers at 16) and have not been the turnover machine like past MSU defenses have exhibited.
“The turnovers, we've got nine turnovers right now, and there are years where we've had 23, 25, that type of thing,” Dantonio said. “We're not turning the ball over a lot, which is a good thing, but where are the turnovers at, they've got to come up. There's opportunities. Missed three interceptions on Saturday. Those type of things have to occur.”
Rutgers changed quarterbacks recently, switching from Chris Laviano to Giovanni Rescigno. Rescigno had 248 yards and one touchdown as well as a rushing touchdown in a six-point loss to Indiana.
Rescigno, a Warren, Mich. De LaSalle high school graduate, will be the likely starter in a homecoming game for him.
“He is a good athlete and runs very well for his size, so obviously excited for the opportunity to him to be being playing this year,” Tressel said. “I think any guy will take pride in the situation and want to represent his program and himself being from his home state.”
Rutgers is led on the ground by running back Robert Martin with 515 yards and one score. Jawuan Harris and Andre Patton, who each have over 350 yards receiving with Harris reeling in three touchdowns to Patton’s five. The offense, however, ranks last in Big Ten in total yards (312 per game) and points (19.4 per game).
The Scarlet Knights rank 13th in the Big Ten in total defense, giving up 445 yards per game and have allowed 41 touchdowns this season. They are particularly vulnerable against the run, allowing 248 yards per game and 24 touchdowns on the ground.
Rutgers head coach Chris Ash, in his first year with the team, was the defensive coordinator for Ohio State last season.
"I've got a lot of respect for Chris Ash, what he's been able to accomplish at Ohio State, and what he's got himself into at Rutgers,” Dantonio said. “He's going to do an outstanding job. But when you look at their football team right now you see a lot of what Ohio State does defensively.”
Rutgers is led defensively by linebacker Trevor Morris, who leads the team with 73 tackles, 3.5 of them for loss, and one sack. Rutgers misses the presence of Greg Jones, who is out for the season with a neck injury. He had 20 tackles in four and a half games before injury.
Both sides have not won a game since week three, where MSU defeated Notre Dame and Rutgers defeated New Mexico. One of these teams will finally get a “W” on the schedule, and if MSU gets some of their key players back from injury, it should be them. MSU has been bad this year, but Rutgers has been even worse. MSU might not cover the spread (currently at 14 points), so I’ll go MSU 34, Rutgers 21.
MVP: Spartan linebackers
Frey and Bullough should each be able to prevent any potential long runs from Martin, and if they can tackle Harris and Patton in space, it will prevent big plays from the Scarlet Knights which they critically need to get momentum.