Keys to the Michigan State Game

Three years ago, this game looked like a horrible mismatch. Not so three years later. Former Head Coach Bobby Williams wrecked the Spartan program that his predecessor had so nicely positioned. Meanwhile, Rutgers Head Coach Greg Schiano has had nearly three years to reanimate the Rutgers program. Will Michigan State be as bad this year under new Head Coach John L. Smith? Has Rutgers improved enough to compete with the Spartans? Here are my five keys to the Michigan State game.


When the Michigan State game was first announced three years ago, it immediately went on my calendar.  This series has meant a lot to me because my younger brother – let's just call him The Eunuch – is a Michigan State alum.  He graduated in 1992.  And was a sophomore when the series started in 1988.  I road tripped with a group of friends – my Rutgers roommate and my brother's best friend – to both games.  And each time was rewarded with an improbable victory over a big time, Big 10 team. 

The schools haven't played since 1991.  Though I was there, I don't recall much of the game.  I remember that Tom Tarver was our QB.  That's about it.  I had been in a Rutgers football media blackout for over a year since I relocated to California in 1990.  Unless Rutgers played a Top 25 opponent, media coverage was limited to one line – the score n the box score section of the Sunday newspaper.  That has changed with the advent of the Internet and satellite TV.  But what of 1991?  I have to extend thanks to Rutgers radio analyst Tim Pernetti for his insights into the 1991 Michigan State game.  Tim was a backup TE on the 1991 team.  Fortunately, his memory is crisper than is mine. 

Michigan State stumbled badly to open the 1991 season.  Doing the unforgivable.  Losing twice to MAC Michigan directional schools.  When Rutgers arrived in East Lansing on September 28, the paper bags and "Unknown Spartan Fans" were out in force. The Spartans were ripe for an upset and Rutgers had an excellent week of practice.  Rutgers scored on its opening possession.  Tarver hit TB Antoine Moore on a 1-yard drag route off play action from the goal line offense.  The Scarlet Knights held that lead throughout the first half, stunning the now numb Spartan faithful.  Rutgers relied upon a ball-control short passing offense out of the playbook of former Head Coach Dick Anderson.  The Scarlet Knight defense also stuffed Spartan TB Tico Duckett, who flayed Rutgers for 229 rushing yards the year before.  Duckett gained only 79 yards on 22 carries this time.  Without an effective running game, Spartan QB Johnson couldn't compensate and was benched after a 5 of 15 for 38 yards performance in the first half. 

The second half was the Courtney Hawkins show.  Michigan State's WR playmaker ran wild through the Rutgers secondary, reeling in big gain after big gain.  Backup QB Jim Miller completed 8 of 16 passes for 165 yards.  Yet for all the yardage Hawkins generated, Rutgers survived most big plays.  Miller found Hawkins for a 38-yard TD reception late in the 3rd Quarter.  Miller threw an INT in the second half, killing another Spartan drive.  Meanwhile, after hanging in for 50+ minutes, Rutgers had one final possession with the score tied.  Rutgers drove into scoring position.  Tarver completed three straight passes, including a crucial 15-yard corner route to Brantley on 4th-n-7.  From the 1-yard line, Rutgers ran the same play action, goal line offense play.  Tarver again found Moore on the drag route.  The silence in Spartan Stadium was deafening.  Rutgers stunned Michigan State again in East Lansing. 

It's twelve years later, and I'm back in East Lansing.  Without my road trip crew, unfortunately.  Including The Eunuch, who now lives in Chicago but couldn't even make a day trip.  Too bad.  But I still want to keep my East Lansing winning streak intact.  Three years ago, this game looked like a horrible mismatch.  Michigan State had contended for the Big 10 championship while Terry Shea was promoting the "shocking power" of his latest collection of mystery recruits.  Three years later, things have changed.  Former Head Coach Bobby Williams – fired mid-season last year with his program in disarray – wrecked the program that his predecessor – Nick Saban – had so nicely positioned.  Michigan State careened to a 4-8 (2-6 Big 10) record last year.  Meanwhile, Rutgers Head Coach Greg Schiano has had nearly three years to reanimate the abortion that Terry Shea handed him.  Will Michigan State be as bad this year under new Head Coach John L. Smith?   Has Rutgers improved enough to compete with the Spartans?  Here are my five keys to the Michigan State game.


1.  Special Teams.  John L. Smith has more than a bit of Beamerball in him.  Smith believes that special teams are more than the kickers.  He emphasizes special teams production and uses his special teams aggressively to generate big plays that can alter the momentum of a game.  Last year, Smith's Louisville team returned 6 kicks for TDs (4 PR and 2 KOR) and blocked 11 kicks (9 punts).  Greg Schiano likewise emphasizes special teams.  Sr KOR Nate Jones has made headlines with two 100-yard KOR TDs last season.  Those performances have evolved into preseason hype for the Big East Special Teams Co-Player of the Year.  The stir over Rutgers' special teams increased after RS So PR Tres Moses scored on the first punt of the season with a 66-yard bolt.  Both teams rely upon special teams to help offenses that otherwise have struggled.  Winning the special teams battle will help the to level the home field.    

2.  Rushing Attack.  The bad news is that Michigan State returns 8 starters on defense.   The good news is that this unit ranked #110 of 117 Division IA teams in rush defense.  Although this unit is experienced, it is also young as only three starters are seniors.  The youth is further compounded by the lack of redshirting under Williams – three of four DLine starters and five overall were forced to grow up early without a redshirt season to acclimate themselves.  Many of the redshirts were medical redshirts and not freshmen redshirts, which implies that the redshirted players haven't fully developed either because injuries have stunted growth. 

Rutgers discovered a rushing attack last week against Buffalo.  Rutgers dominated the offensive line of scrimmage and dictated tempo and rhythm to the Bulls.  Even though Western Michigan gained only 6 rushing yards against Michigan State last week, I believe the Spartans are susceptible to the run.  Western Michigan still runs former Offensive Coordinator Bill Cubit's offense, featuring draw plays and a horizontal passing game.  Western Michigan doesn't emphasize the running game. Michigan State will throw eight-man fronts at Rutgers to stop the rushing attack.  The Scarlet Knights must find a way to run against the Spartans. Against Buffalo, Rutgers ran almost exclusively between the tackles.  It's time to unveil the whole offense.  I want to see Rutgers running Leonard from the FB position.  Then, I want to see Rutgers use the counter pitch to catch Michigan State off balance on the perimeter. 

3.  Man-to-Man Coverage.  Poor Rutgers man-to-man coverage last week was camouflaged by poor Buffalo execution.  Granted, these problems may be attributable to an overriding concern for run support against a one-dimensional rushing offense.  This week will provide a better test because Michigan State is far more talented than Buffalo and the Spartans will primarily be a passing team.  However, Smith apparently lacks the talent and depth at WR to run his spread offense.  Both starting WRs departed, including Biletnikoff Award winner Charles Roberts.  Only two WR are experienced and neither caught a TD pass last year.  Michigan State may yet have talent at WR, but if so, it will be young talent.  Rutgers will have an experience edge at starting CB and Schiano should be able to employ his frosh CBs because they will be as equally inexperienced as the Spartan WRs they are covering – no disadvantage for the extra depth.  Rutgers CBs must cover the Spartan WRs tightly, thus allowing the safeties to support the young LBs. 

4.  Pass Protection.  Last week, the Scarlet Knight OLine kept QB Ryan Hart's uniform almost spotless. Buffalo did not sack Hart.  The Bulls knocked him down only a few times.  Buffalo rarely hurried him.  Michigan State may be somewhat in a state of disarray.  But they should never be mistaken for Buffalo.  Big 10 athletes are two scales above those of a Division IA bottom feeder.  That being said, the Spartan defense did not generate much of a pass rush last season – 19 sacks as a team with RS Jr DE Clifford Dukes leading the way with four.  To provide some perspective, Rutgers recorded only 15 sacks last season.   The Spartans likely will generate more sacks this year because Smith is an aggressive coach.  He is likely to play an eight-man defensive front to stop the Rutgers running game and force the Scarlet Knights to throw.  Then, he is likely to blitz out of that eight-man front to force Hart to make big plays.  The Rutgers OLine must neutralize the pass rush of the Spartan DLine.  The Scarlet Knights must force Michigan State to blitz and then pick up the blitzers – either with blocking by the RBs or with route adjustments by the WRs.  Rutgers must not yield more than two sacks to the Spartan defense because sacks will kill offensive possessions.  The Scarlet Knights must punish Michigan State when it blitzes. 

5.  Turnovers.  Last season, Rutgers shared with Temple the distinction of the most generous offense, averaging over three TOs per game.  With such an anemic offense, the TOs often stoked the fires of blowouts.  The Rutgers offense does not appear to be as anemic this year.  However, it still lacks the potency to spot the opponent several TOs and still outscore them.  Rutgers must play a near-perfect game to steal a win in East Lansing.  The Scarlet Knights can afford no more than one TO.  And it can't be a costly TO (e.g., in the red zone or in the shadow of Rutgers' goalposts).  Furthermore, Rutgers must force more TOs than they commit.   And the Scarlet Knights must convert the Spartan TOs into points.  Opportunistic, opportunistic, opportunistic.


1.   So QB Ryan Hart.  Get used to it.  As the QB of the west coast offense, Hart's performance will be integral to the performance of the offense.  The running game will complement the passing game.  Michigan State will attempt to pressure Hart into making mistakes.   The Spartans likely will throw as many blitzers as necessary, if necessary, at Hart to disrupt the timing of the passing game.  Hart must make accurate reads and the correct decisions.  Hart must execute the passing game against a base pass rush, thus forcing Michigan State to blitz.  Then he must exploit holes in the defense created by blitzing Spartans.  Hart must have a near perfect effort if Rutgers is to win.  He must complete 67% of his passes and throw for at 250 yards against a Spartan defense whose secondary is very inexperienced.  That's a tall order but that is what it will take. 

2.  Sr CB/KOR Nate Jones.  During summer camp, Schiano sang the praises of Jones as a KOR.  Rutgers is promoting Jones' candidacy as an All-American KOR.  However, Schiano also noted that Jones must improve if he is to be as good a CB as he is a KOR.  Jones was all over the field in the first half of the Buffalo game, with 6 tackles and a pass break-up.  However, the average gain on these plays was over 9 yards so Jones was not exactly making high-impact plays.  Jones is Rutgers best cover CB and best tackling CB.  Michigan State is going to spread the field with 3WR and 4WR formations.  If Rutgers has to keep both safeties back in a two-deep zone, that will give the Spartans the advantage at the line of scrimmage.  Jones must be able to neutralize one Spartan receiver in man-to-man coverage.  Jones must also make an impact on a KOR.  He needs to break at least one long return.  

3.  RS So FB Brian Leonard.  Leonard emerged the Buffalo game as a multi-dimensional threat.  He converted 7 first downs on 11 touches – 6 carries and 5 receptions.  Rutgers Offensive Coordinator Craig Ver Steeg must use Leonard to counterpunch the Michigan State defense when it blitzes aggressively.  Flare routes and seam routes would be particularly effective.  Since Michigan State will put eight men on the line of scrimmage to stop the run, Leonard could be particularly successful on drag routes.  And once the LBs start coming up hard to stop the drag, then Leonard and turn upfield in a wheel route.  He must make Michigan State pay for blitzing and force their LBs to honor their pass coverage responsibilities.  Leonard must catch at least 5 passes and gain at least 60 yards.  As with Hart, it's a tall order but essential to the success of the offense. 

4.   RS Fr Clark Harris.  Leonard's partner in crime, Harris is the other player most capable of counterattacking blitzing LBs. If Harris can exploit openings in the middle of the field and the flats, he will force the Spartan LBs to stay at home and honor their pass coverage responsibilities.  If the Spartan LBs are staying home, then they won't be blitzing and that will pass the offensive initiative to Rutgers, who then will be able to dictate the offensive flow of the game.  Harris must catch at least 4 passes and gain at least 75 yards. 

5.   RS Jr PK Ryan Sands/RS Fr PK Justin Musiek.  Last week, Sands' performance was one of the few blemishes to a very solid outing by Rutgers.  Sands missed FGAs of 35 and 45 yards.  Rutgers could afford to leave points on the field against Buffalo.  The Scarlet Knights have no such luxury on the road in East Lansing.  I'm expecting Schiano to give Musiek a chance this week.  Regardless who kicks, they must make every FGA under 40 yards.  And the PK needs to make a play from long range if given the opportunity.  That includes So PK Michael Cortese if he is asked to attempt a long FGA. 

Coming Next:  Michigan State Post-Mortem.  A look back at the Michigan State game to see how Rutgers performed with respect to my perceived keys. 

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