EAST LANSING — Mel Tucker probably didn’t plan for his first game as MSU’s head coach to go like this.
An empty stadium, cardboard cutouts and seldom family members replaced the thousands of fans normally in the seats at Spartan Stadium as MSU took on Rutgers on Saturday afternoon.
It didn’t go well for Michigan State. Rutgers snapped a 21-game losing streak against Big Ten teams with a 38-27 win in East Lansing.
“We got a lot of corrections we need to make,” Tucker said after the game.
What didn’t go well? It was 10 turnover's total, seven for MSU and three for Rutgers, and numerous penalties led to an early 14-0 deficit that was too much for MSU.
The game ended how it started: Rutger's intercepted MSU quarterback Rocky Lombardi with 37 seconds to go in the game to close out the win.
And Greg Schiano, Rutgers head coach, had his team balling early.
First, a 12-yard Isaih Pacheco rushing score for Rutgers with 11:19 left in the first opened the doors for more. Then, the first play on offense was a fumble - which led to a punt - but MSU fumbled again and Rutgers went up 14-0 early.
MSU’s Jayden Reed had two first-half fumbles and Lombardi got strip-sacked and threw an interception while targeting Jalen Nailor.
“We killed ourselves with a whole lot of turnovers,” Lombardi said. “I don’t know if there’s ever been a team – in the history of football – to win a game with seven turnovers … you turn over the ball seven times you aren’t gonna win a game.”
That deficit turned out to be the difference in the game. So did the final over-the-shoulder grab in the corner of the endzone by Shameen Jones to make it 38-20 late in the game. Rutger’s totaled 276 yards offense in the game but MSU had 379.
Rutgers run game shines, Lombardi starts at quarterback
Lombardi was 31-of-43 for 319 yards passing with a 3-2 touchdown-interception ratio in the game and helped MSU cut it to a 15-point game by setting up a 48-yard field goal from Matt Coghlin to close out the first half.
“At the end of the day, my performance wasn’t good enough to win us the game,” Lombardi said following the loss. “In my mind, I need to be better.”
His first passing touchdown was to the polarizing Jayden Reed, who shook and then baked a defender en route to a 50-yard catch and run touchdown in the first quarter, it seemed like a sign of life for a struggling Spartan offense.
“I just gotta do my job,” Reed said. “When theres a crowd around me I got to protect the ball with two hands … when stuff like that happens (two fumbles) you gotta move on.”
Reed, who hadn’t played a Big Ten game prior to Saturday, said that the positives were there but ultimately they didn’t get it done.
Noah Vedral, the transfer from Nebraska who started for Rutgers, scampered for a score and Pacheco, ran for two of his own.
The duo was responsible for three of four Rutgers rushing scores in the first half that was the difference in the game early. RU gathered 111 rushing yards to MSU’s 60 in the game.
MSU makes it a game in the second half despite turnovers
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Midway through the third, Nailor got a pass on the right side of the field.
The type of catch where the receiver just needs to make a play, he did, 30 yards to paydirt – his touchdown catch with 6:30 to go in the third made it a 28-20 game.
It was the closest the Spartans would get, even with the abundance of turnovers from both teams in the game.
The catalyst for the big day from Lombardi, who seems to have cemented himself as the starter with the performance despite a pair of early turnovers, was playing from behind for the entirety of the game.
Both Nailor and Reed combined for 212 yards receiving and all three MSU touchdowns, a big performance from a duo that’ll likely be a large part of the offense for the rest of the year. It was Reed’s two touchdown catches in the game that helped MSU keep it close.
An even bigger reason for the game being closer than it maybe should’ve been is the defense of MSU. It only gave up 10 second-half points after a 28 point first half from Rutgers.
“I feel like we didn’t get a lot of opportunities to get the ball out (in the first half) you know, turnovers,” senior defensive end Drew Beesley said. “Whoever wins the turnover margin is ultimately going to win the game at the end of the game. I feel like our defense needed to get more turnovers and create ball disruption.”
Shakur Brown had an interception in the second and Xavier Henderson, Noah Harvey and Antjuan Simmons shined in a new-look defense. MSU came out early in a nickel package: A five defensive back-formation or 4-2-5, four lineman, two linebackers and five DBs. A new look that worked for a lot of Saturday’s game.
MSU will face off against Michigan in Ann Arbor at Noon EST next Saturday, Oct. 31. That game can be viewed on FOX.
Rutgers takes on Indiana at home at 3:30 p.m., on Big Ten Network on Saturday, Oct. 31.
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