Monday, January 25, 2021

Column: MSU losing to Rutgers at home isn’t good, but it could’ve been worse

October 26, 2020
<p>Fans socially distance at Spartan Stadium on Oct. 24, 2020, during a football game against Rutgers.</p>

Fans socially distance at Spartan Stadium on Oct. 24, 2020, during a football game against Rutgers.

Photo by Alyte Katilius | The State News

Butterfingers, a greased pig, the jokes go on and on when two teams play hot potato with the pigskin.

Seven turnovers isn’t pretty. Ten in a game between two teams is hard to explain.

MSU fumbled the football six times Saturday, in a 38-27 loss to Rutgers at home. MSU, and not the opposing defense, recovered only one fumble. The Spartans gave away the football in the passing game two more times.

It was ugly. For Spartan fans, losing to Rutgers probably always will be. But it could’ve been a lot uglier than Saturday’s 11-point loss, a final score that was not indicative of how close the game actually was.

“I know our fans expect more from this football team than what we showed today,” Tucker said after the game. “We expect more out of ourselves. There’s a higher standard. We’ve got work to do.”

After the game, it’s obvious that everyone in the locker room was angry. Linebacker Antjuan Simmons resonated the higher expectations Tucker spoke of. 

He said that improvement is driven by “everybody" in the program.

“We’re all moving forward. There’s no ifs, ands or buts about it,” Simmons said.

The Rutgers victory snapped the Scarlet Knights' 21-game losing streak against Big Ten teams.

“We got a lot of room for improvement,” Simmons said. “We’re going to come back next week like a completely different team. We got to clean up our play. We shot ourselves in the foot a lot today. Like a lot. So, we really have to clean up our play.”

Simmons was flying to the ball all game. Many defenders were despite giving up 38 points, only 10 of those came after the half.

Like I said, it wasn’t good. But it can always be worse. An 11-point loss with a seemingly record-like number of turnovers is the best-case scenario in some regards.

What worked

It was obvious that Rocky Lombardi is the guy at quarterback. He threw for 319-3-2 (yards-touchdown-interception) in the game and even though he had a fumble too, he looked much improved from 2019.

That’s a good sign. Coming into this game it was evident that the biggest question was quarterback, and Lombardi, for now, has put that conversation seemingly to rest.

On defense, the Spartans rolled out a nickel package early: five defensive backs, two linebackers and four down defensive linemen. It wasn’t super successful early, but the Spartans had the barebones of an offseason and Greg Schiano has evidently coached this Rutgers team.

Defensive backs Chris Jackson, Shakur Brown and Tre Person played well. But a defense can only do so much when the offense gives the ball away seven times.

“We obviously got to get rid of turnovers," Lombardi said. "... Honestly the defense would be more productive too because I think a lot of the defensive points we gave up today we’re on the offense.”

Simmons had a great game with 11 tackles, three for loss and a quarter back hit, but he won’t care if he comes away with a loss.

Lombardi went on to say that outside of the turnovers, the Spartans had a productive day on offense — he’s right. Jalen Nailor and Jayden Reed proved they can be very good. But both coughed up the ball in inopportune moments. 

Michigan week will say a lot about this team on both sides of the ball, that’s for sure.

What didn’t work

For the Spartans, it was the run game.

It is impossible to tell what is up with Elijah Collins, and Tucker didn’t elaborate after the game.

Surprisingly, the thing that has ruled the day so often in recent years for MSU was the exactly the opposite. It might’ve been worse that Simmons — who looked great outside of a fumbled carry that Rutgers recovered — Heyward and Collins all split time. 

Both offensive lineman Devontae Dobbs and Luke Campbell didn’t dress, the offensive line struggled. 

That is likely the direct reason why the run game wasn’t working and, going forward, MSU will need to find continuity at that position group because otherwise, Lombardi is going to have to throw a lot to keep this team in games.

Another thing that didn’t work? Taking care of the ball. Like many players reiterated after the game, you don’t win when you cough it up that many times. Turnover margin is one of the most important stats in football.

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