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Preview: Michigan State and Rutgers will be the battle of the unknowns, keys to the game

October 23, 2020
<p>Senior linebacker Antjuan Simmons at practice Sept. 21, 2020. Photo courtesy of Michigan State Athletic Communications.</p>

Senior linebacker Antjuan Simmons at practice Sept. 21, 2020. Photo courtesy of Michigan State Athletic Communications.

On Oct. 24, two eras will be starting as two separate programs in the Big Ten, one in Mel Tucker’s Michigan State Spartans and the other being Greg Schiano’s Rutgers Scarlet Knights, face each other in Spartan Stadium at noon. With no spring practice and zero game tape to review, both teams will be facing an unknown enemy.

Rutgers’ keys to the game 

Schiano is returning to Rutgers for his second stint as a head coach. In his first stint from 2001-2011, Schiano went 68-67 as head coach, and finished 11-2 in 2006.

"Coach Schiano is a good friend of mine, and I have a lot of respect for him,” Tucker said. “He’s an outstanding football coach, a great man and he’s a proven winner. I’m really happy to see him back in the Big Ten. ... I know that he works really hard in preparing his team, so it’s going to be an exciting time on Saturday.”

Schiano showed New Brunswick some of the best years of Rutgers football in the modern era in the early 2000’s before departing for the NFL and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. With his return and a rising men’s basketball program, there’s a new energy at Rutgers that hasn’t been there since they joined the Big Ten in 2014.

Schiano and the Scarlet Knights are going to need this energy to take on Michigan State on Saturday. While Schiano is getting on the recruiting trail for the future, his program has a while to go in terms of talent on the roster to compete at a real level in the Big Ten.

However, a few incoming transfers will make an instant impact for Rutgers on Saturday. First, former Nebraska quarterback Noah Vedral was recently listed on the depth chart as one of the possible starters along with Artur Sitkowski. Vedral may be named starter for Rutgers on Saturday and provides experience as well as an ability to run the football with seven touchdowns in 12 appearances for Nebraska and UCF in his freshman season.

One of his possible targets if he does indeed start is former Wisconsin wide receiver Aron Cruickshank who has top end speed and returning ability with two return touchdowns for the Badgers last season. Cruickshank will likely line up in the slot and be a deep threat for the Scarlet Knights.

On defense, Rutgers brings in former Michigan defensive tackle Micheal Dwumfour and he will immediately fill the interior of the defensive line.

The defense with Schiano at the helm as a known defensive specialist will be key for the Scarlet Knights as they try and stop the unknown that is the Michigan State offense. If Rutgers can revive the defense of old under Schiano and find an identity on offense for the season, Rutgers will have a chance.

Michigan State’s keys to the game

Coach Tucker comes into his first game as head coach of the Spartans with tons of questions swirling. Who will start at quarterback? What’s going to change with the offense? Is MSU going to line up in the 3-4?

Regardless of those unknowns, for Michigan State to come away with a win against Rutgers, they need to display a physicality and toughness advantage and win the battle in the trenches.

"We're expecting a good team to show up on Saturday, a disciplined team, a team that's going to come after you," MSU linebacker Antjuan Simmons said. "Even previous Rutgers teams came at you. They've never been just somebody that you're going to just show up for. They've always been a physical team. We know they're going to show up.”

A starting quarterback has yet to be named for the Spartans and likely won’t until game day. Regardless of who it is, it's crucial the offensive line opens holes for Elijah Collins in the run game to make the game easier for whoever the starter ends up being.

“We want to be able to run the ball on our terms, which means when we want to run it, we can,” Tucker said. “When we have to run it and everyone in the stadium and everyone on TV knows that we have to run the ball, we can do that too.”

This is an offensive line that has had consecutive years with injuries and inconsistencies but has a group of veterans mixed with young talent across the line. The offense’s success will predicate on how well the offensive line can provide protection for the quarterback and open running lanes for Collins.

Next is the defensive line who loses Kenny Willekes, Raequan Williams, and Mike Panasiuk as starters, and returns Jacub Panasiuk and Naquan Jones as major contributors. Michigan State will need new playmakers on this defensive line to be successful this season and especially for this Rutgers game. 

With two quarterbacks who have been through transfers and turmoil to be likely starters, if Michigan State can make the quarterbacks feel pressure and not allow them to create a rhythm in the passing game, it will be difficult for this Rutgers offense to get moving without any stand-out, returning running back for the Scarlet Knights.

If Michigan State can create a run game and ease the pressure on the starter to make plays as well as make the opposing quarterback uncomfortable, Michigan State will be well on their way to their first win in the Tucker era.

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