Mike Wilson: What has this first year in the Big Ten been like for Rutgers? It looks from the outside like it has come with some ups and downs.
Sam Hellman: Ups and downs is a great way to describe it. There are some major ups from the fan base. Beating Michigan was an all-time moment for a lot of people, however badly the Wolverines played at that time. Rutgers has more juice in the Big Ten, more money, more exposure and a conference with impressive leadership and bowl ties. That has not been the case with so much change in the Big East and American since Mike Tranghese retired. The downs are obvious. Rutgers didn't get any favors from Big Ten schedules with back-to-back-to-back games against Ohio State, Nebraska and Wisconsin but that is no excuse for the blowouts that took place. Rutgers fell hard down to earth after that, but became bowl eligible and won't finish in the basement of the conference -- not many expected that.
Wilson: It seems like Gary Nova has some flashes of brilliance, while other times he isn't good. What is key for him to get going and how has his play been this season?
Hellman: Rutgers has to protect him. Nova is slippery against the pass rush, but easily flustered and that leads to mistakes. When defenders attack him up the middle, that is where the turnovers happen. He is three away from a school record in interceptions, and already holds the all-time touchdown mark. Nova melted down at the end of the last two seasons, but that has not happened with Kyle Flood's two hires to help quarterback. Former Maryland coach Ralph Friedgen and former Rutgers quarterback Mike Teel are both excellent additions to help Nova. The key for Nova to get going is wide receiver Leonte Carroo. Dating back to their time as high school teammates, they have an electric connection. Michigan State has to shut down Carroo and make other receivers beat them.
Wilson: One of the things that seems to be talked about the most with Rutgers is their insane ability to block kicks and punts. What do the Scarlet Knights do so well on special teams?
Hellman: It's two things. For one, Rutgers practices it .... a lot. Rutgers devotes a ton of time to special teams in practice, and goes for 100 percent aggression in its play-calling. It's something Greg Schiano started 15 years ago, and Rutgers has done it ever since. They lead the country in blocked kicks over the last five years. Secondly, Rutgers has a handful of freak athletes that fit the job perfectly. That starts with defensive end Kemoko Turay -- a 6-foot-6 former basketball player with absurd athleticism. He has three blocks this year, including the one that beat Michigan.
Wilson: Kemoko Turay has racked up the sacks this season, but who else has been big for the Rutgers defense? How well do you expect them to play against a Michigan State offense that has been putting up a lot of points?
Hellman: Rutgers has a strong defensive line, and you can add forme five-star prospect Darius Hamilton to the list of impact defenders. He and Turay are hard to contain on third downs, but Connor Cook should be savvy enough to call out the right protections. I expect the Rutgers defense to make one or two "wow" plays to stun the Spartans, but for Michigan State's offense to win the overall battle. Rutgers gave up 1,208 rushing yards over its last four games, and Michigan State is just as dangerous on the ground as those teams. I don't expect a Rose Bowl level game from Cook, and the smart play is to attack Rutgers on the ground.
Wilson: What are your predictions for the game and how do you expect it to unfold?
Hellman: I don't expect Rutgers to pull off this upset. Yes, you can argue that it's a trap game for Michigan State, but too many factors are in their favor -- home field advantage, a balanced offense, an elite quarterback and a powerful defense. I could see a similar outcome to what happened last week against Maryland.