After weeks of choppiness and lack of rhythm, Michigan State’s offense finally found some consistency in a 27-21 win over Rutgers Saturday afternoon.
The unit certainly wasn’t perfect against the Scarlet Knights. There were missed opportunities in the red zone, a couple of rough overthrows from redshirt junior quarterback Payton Thorne and two failed fourth-down conversions.
However, the Spartans were able to actually move the ball with some consistency throughout the afternoon both through the air and on the ground. That improved look on offense can be tied directly to the improved rushing attack.
“When we’re running the ball well, it opens everything up for us,” Thorne said. “Our playbook is at 100 percent capacity when we’re running the ball well. We can do whatever we want.”
The rushing attack has been terrible all year. Heading into Saturday’s matchup against the Scarlet Knights, MSU was averaging less than 100 yards per game.
By the end of the game, Michigan State finished with 197 rushing yards. That’s tied for the second-most rushing yards the Spartans have had in a game this season and the most they’ve had against a power-five opponent.
Redshirt sophomore running back Jalen Berger gobbled up a majority of the carries, finishing with 85 yards on 16 carries – an average of 5.3 yards per carry. In addition, he added a 15-yard reception to his total yardage tally. Berger also punched in MSU’s only rushing touchdown of the night.
Fifth-year senior running back Jarek Broussard had a slightly more efficient night, earning 80 yards on just 11 carries – an average of 7.3 yards per carry.
“It was good to see us run the ball well,” Thorne said. “Guys run the ball hard, o-lines open up creases, receivers doing a good job blocking on the edge.”
Thanks to some read-options, Thorne also got involved in the run game a few times, finishing with 33 yards on five attempts.
While running backs tend to receive the most attention with a good ground game, the importance of the offensive line cannot be overstated. Michigan State’s o-line has struggled mightily at points this season, thanks in part to some injuries, but the unit showed up against Rutgers. Throughout the night, the line was able to help out Berger and Broussard with some good push.
“Coach Kap (Chris Kapilovic) does a really good job with technique and fundamentals, and coaching guys to play hard and finish,” Head Coach Mel Tucker said about Michigan State’s offensive line coach and run game coordinator. “The guys are developing and getting better. The run game really starts with the offensive line.”
Those 197 yards on the ground made possible by the backs and the o-line helped Michigan State set an offensive tempo, balance out the time of possession and, most importantly, open up opportunities for the offense.
“When we’re able to be efficient and execute in the running game, it opens up the passing game,” fifth-year senior tight end Daniel Barker said.
Despite some poor throws, overall, Thorne had a good afternoon. He finished with 256 yards, a pair of touchdowns and no turnovers. That classic chemistry with senior wide receiver Jayden Reed reappeared against the Scarlet Knights, as he finished with a team-high 90 receiving yards and a touchdown on four targets.
However, it wasn’t just the “Reed Show” on offense. Thorne distributed the ball across his offense, targeting seven different players throughout the afternoon. The usual suspects showed up on the receiving stat sheet – Reed, sophomore wide receiver Keon Coleman and junior wide receiver Tre Mosley – but Thorne also seemed to develop some chemistry with his tight ends. He completed six passes to the position group, with Barker notching four of those receptions for 64 yards and a touchdown.
“We knew the tight ends would be a factor in the passing game,” Tucker said. “They were trying to take away some of our wide receivers, but backs and tight ends can be very effective in the passing game.”
Barker appeared to finally develop some chemistry with his quarterback, most noticeably on Michigan State’s first touchdown of the day. Thorne found him splitting the defense in the middle of the field, catching him wide-open in stride for an easy touchdown.
With a solid showing from the tight ends, a great game from the backs, a well-rounded performance from the receivers and a good afternoon from Thorne, it was one of the more consistent performances the offense has put on this season.
Again, there were certainly areas to improve upon such as missed opportunities in the red zone and in the passing game, but overall, it was a step in the right direction. That’s especially true considering that Rutgers has an above-average defense, ranked 18th in total defense heading into Saturday’s game.
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Sitting at 5-5, Michigan State is just one win away from bowl eligibility. A surefire way to ensure a bid to the postseason is to continue that offensive consistency the team found against Rutgers.
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