MSU hands in first complete effort in win over Rutgers
For seven weeks, the only consistency for MSU football was that no matter the scheme, the personnel or the play calls, a loss was inevitable.
Nothing was complete for MSU in the seven-game drought. If the offense clicked, the defense lagged. If the offense sputtered, the defense was stout. Other times, both were just plain bad.
After weeks of questioning the team’s intangibles, MSU met a similar lowly opponent, flipped a switch and staved off becoming the bums of the Big Ten.
MSU thoroughly defeated Rutgers on Saturday, turning in its most complete performance of the season — a 49-0 victory.
“It’s great to know that streak that we had of losses is over,” junior linebacker Chris Frey said. “We tried to have fun in the locker room after the game.”
Head coach Mark Dantonio relayed the feeling in the locker as a championship atmosphere. Players sat up in chairs instead of hunched and cracked jokes for the first time in a long time.
“You'd have thought we'd won the championship in that locker room,” Dantonio said. “It's been a long time.”
A game reminiscent of championship seasons in 2013 and 2015 halted a baffling tailspin for the Spartans, delivering a bright spot that came far too late in the season.
As the ails piled up nothing seemed to work, and perhaps the only cure was Rutgers.
“I can’t say finally we just got sick of losing, but we got to a point where we needed to win," Frey said. "We had a really good opportunity to come out and pursue that, and that's what we did today."
The Spartans amassed 403 yards of rolling offense, cutting through the Rutgers defense mostly on the ground. Facing the nation’s 122nd rush defense, MSU compiled 277 yards of rushing behind a resilient offensive line and a charging trio of running backs.
“Obviously we’ve been a little beat up at that position,” co-offensive coordinator Dave Warner said. “I think we went into the week still trying to solidify it a bit.”
The offensive line had struggled against Illinois with instances of failed blocks, lack of quarterback protection, an onslaught of penalties and the ability to stay healthy.
This week it committed no penalties on scoring drives and sustained only one injury to Tyler Higby.
“We had those pieces sort of put in place early in the week with (Cole) Chewins starting at left tackle and so forth,” Warner said. “Obviously getting Kodi (Kieler) back was big, he’s just a great competitor up there.”
In pass protection MSU held firm, not allowing a sack. Fifth-year senior quarterback Tyler O’Connor got the start, and for the first time all season he seemed to have time to make throws.
Twice he found Josiah Price for a touchdown in a goal line offense and found Trishton Jackson for a 50-yard touchdown play that helped separate MSU from potential throwing away a win.
Other touchdown drives were smooth, free of any stalling penalties or miscues. MSU carved easily through a weak defense that had given up an average of more than 40 points per game.
“It was fun,” Price said, laughing. “It was a lot of fun, I kept turning to guys like LJ (Scott) and Tyler (O'Connor) like, ‘man, this is fun’ when we come out here when we play to our potential and we come out and dominate a team.”
The defense pitched a shutout for the first time since 2013, a 14-0 victory over Purdue. MSU was able to disrupt Rutgers quarterback Giovanni Rescigno's rhythm, keeping him from adding to back-to-back 200-plus yard performances through the air.
Rescigno went 6-of-16 with two interception,s including a momentum-turning pick-six in the first quarter. Demetrious Cox jumped the route, reading the eyes of Rescigno and meeting the ball before it reached the intended target.
Cox, struggling as of late and not walking out with the captains against Illinois, raced his interception back 25 yards in what seemed to be a therapeutic touchdown.
“It was huge,” fifth-year senior linebacker Riley Bullough said of the pick-six. “Football is a game of momentum and that is a huge momentum changer. ... We just kind of rolled from there.”
Rutgers would only gain 149 yards total, 40 through the air and 109 on the ground, against a defense poised to put together and finish a strong effort.
“Every week we say, ‘let's get a shutout, let's get a shutout,’” Frey said. “We have been close at times, and I don't know if we have had one since I've been here, so that's huge for us especially moving forward into next week where we have a big game.”
The win seemed to massage away the kinks of a sputtering team, allowing them to subside for at least a week.
For now, MSU will celebrate a win, a much-needed win. And for the first time this season, a complete effort.