Michigan State head football coach Mel Tucker and his staff were secretive about what this Michigan State team would look like. One thing was clear though, this team was going to focus on the fundamentals.
“It’s going to be important for us to play our brand of football,” Tucker said last Tuesday. “It’s going to be a lot about what we do, how we execute our plan, how hard we play, technique and fundamentals, how smart we play, how fast we play, and how physical we play. That’s going to be the determining factor of what type of success we have on Saturday.”
Despite that focus, it was the fundamentals that were lacking for the Michigan State offense on Saturday versus Rutgers with five fumbles, two interceptions, and two turnovers on downs.
“Those were disappointing,” Tucker said. “Turnover margin is the largest determining factor in winning or losing games, college and pro. We talk about it all the time, ‘the ball, the ball, the ball,’ taking care of the football and taking away the ball on defense. If you turn the ball over seven times, it’s going to be tough to beat anyone, you’re not going to be able to beat good teams.”
Sophomore wide receiver Jayden Reed in his first game as a Spartan after transferring from Western Michigan, brought a roller coaster like energy to the offense, hauling in 11 catches for 128 yards and two touchdowns.
Reed over the course of the game showed his high ceiling, shaking a defender for a 50 yard score and demanding a large share of the targets. At times, Reed looked to be the high-volume number one wide receiver Michigan State hasn’t had since Felton Davis left the program.
Then came the fumbles.
Reed hauled in his first reception for the Spartans on their first drive, before the ball was punched out by the Rutgers defense. Then early in the second quarter as Michigan State looked to cut the lead to one score, Reed caught a pass and fumbled the ball once again inside Rutgers’ redzone.
“I just have to do my job,” Reed said. “When there’s a crowd around me, I gotta protect the ball with two hands. That’s what they preach to us in practice, Coach Tucker also preaches to us next play. When stuff like that happens you just have to move on, you can’t keep that in your head and let it affect you on the next play or drive.”
Despite the fumbles, Reed did have a great day for his first game in the green and white, and says he will continue to work.
“There were a lot of good things,” Reed said. “That’s what Coach Tucker preaches about, look at the little things. Work hard everyday in practice, focus on that day, focus on the task at hand, that’s how you get the job done.”
Quarterback Rocky Lombardi praised his top weapon as he looks to create a dynamic duo for this offense moving forward.
“Wow, he is a talented player,” Lombardi said. “For him to come to his first Big Ten game, he obviously had to sit last year and I’m sure that was painful for him since he was an all freshman MAC player, but he’s got some talent. He’s shown it in practices, he’s shown it in scrimmages, shown it in workouts. He’s going to be a real good weapon for us and a real good player here.”
The rest of the young wide receiver core for Michigan State displayed flashes of potential, but miscommunication and fumbles dampered what could have been a solid start to the season for the entire unit.
Early in the second quarter, quarterback Lombardi targeted his junior wide receiver Jalen Nailor, but there appeared to be some miscommunication as Nailor continued to run a streak upfield as Lombardi threw short for an out-route. Just plays later, the same situation played out resulting in an Lombardi interception. However, Nailor would end the first half catching two consecutive passes to set kicker Matt Coughlin up for a 48 yard field goal.
Tre Mosley who also started at wide receiver would leave the game with an injury.
Lombardi, who relied on Reed and Nailor throughout the day, drew the start at Quarterback for the Spartans. The redshirt junior had his fair share of positive moments on the day, but also some struggles finishing with 31 completions on 44 attempts, three touchdowns, two interceptions, and one fumble.
“At the end of the day, my performance wasn’t enough to win us the game — in my mind, I need to be better,” Lombardi said. “Some things I did well was I completed most of my passes, I kept the ball in play, I kept us moving in the right direction. I think the offense showed some good things today. We moved the ball, obviously we killed ourselves with a lot of turnovers. We’re moving the ball and we’re showing that we can be productive on offense and that we can score touchdowns.”
Michigan State’s leading rusher last year Elijah Collins was notably missing most of the day for the Spartans, only getting nine carries for the day. Tucker decided to go running back by committee, utilizing Collins, returning senior Connor Heyward, and true freshman Jordon Simmons.
The run game ultimately struggled throughout the game. However, Simmons had the most success of all three running backs who received carries, going for 43 yards on 14 carries. Simmons was successful on his carries, but a fumble late dampered his performance as well.
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“I don’t know that there’s ever been a team in the history of football to win a game with seven turnovers,” Lombardi said. “If you turn over the balls seven times you’re not going to win a game. It’s pretty unfortunate that it happened, but we just got to work on that this week, and lock-in.”
Michigan State’s offense will look to reduce the turnovers next Saturday when they travel to Ann Arbor to face their rival Michigan.
“We got to get rid of the turnovers,” Lombardi said. “I think that if we don’t turn over the ball today, I think we have a really efficient and really productive offensive day, and honestly the defense would be more productive too. I think a lot of the defensive points we gave up today were on the offense because we turned the ball over in our own territory. There’s so many obstacles for the defense to overcome. Just cutting out those turnovers and being comfortable with what we’re doing.”
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