MICHIGAN STATE POST MORTEM
Having witnessed the two previous upsets at Michigan State, I again ventured to East Lansing to test my luck. I tailgated for several hours with some fellow Rutgers fans – Bob/Kathy Ribeiro from Chicago and Dan/Becky Tretola, recently relocated to Ann Arbor. It was a perfect football day – sunny but not too hot. We were briefly joined by small groups of Rutgers fans on their way to the stadium. We also had an enjoyable time with our Spartan neighbors, who were very hospitable. Cautiously optimistic, we felt Rutgers had a chance.
The Michigan State game started similarly to the 2002 Tennessee game. Rutgers stunned the home crowd with an early big play and kept the heavily favored home team on its heels. In my Keys to the Michigan State Game, I wondered if Michigan State would be as bad they were last year while transitioning under a new coaching regime. I also wondered if Rutgers had improved enough to close the gap. As Rutgers showed in the 1st Quarter, Michigan State was vulnerable. However, the Spartan's superior athleticism, compounded with Rutgers inexperience in key areas, enabled Michigan State to seize control of the game and subsequently cruise to a 44-28 win in East Lansing.
The Scarlet Knights forced Michigan State 3-n-out on the opening possession. On Rutgers' third play from scrimmage, So QB Ryan Hart connected with So WR Shawn Tucker on 65-yard TD after Tucker split the two-deep zone, silencing the Spartan faithful. The lead was short-lived as So TB Jaren Hayes beat sleeping RS Fr FS Bryan Durango on a throwback wheel route for a 51-yard TD. Michigan State forced a Rutgers 3-n-out and drove into Rutgers territory but So WLB William Beckford intercepted a QB throwback intended for Sr QB Jeff Smoker from So WR Agim Shabaj at the RU34. Rutgers drove into Michigan State territory but failed to convert a 4th-n-5 at the MS35. The Scarlet Knights forced another 3-n-out but Spartan P Sr Jason Daily pinned Rutgers on the RU10 with a 48-yard punt. RS Fr FB Brian Leonard turned the corner on a 1st down drag route and rambled down the sideline for 72 yards. Three plays later, Hart found Fr TE Sam Johnson on a post route for a 7-yard TD. Rutgers lead 14-7 at the end of the 1st Quarter.
Daily again pinned Rutgers deep (RU4) with a 74-yard punt. Rutgers picked up 2 first downs but eventually punted. Smoker and Shabaj immediately burned Jr SS Jarvis Johnson for a 62-yard TD on an out-n-up route after Johnson bit on a pump fake. Michigan State forced the Scarlet Knights 3-n-out but RS Sr CB Brandon Haw jumped a Shabaj out route, intercepted Smoker, and returned the pick 61 yards for a TD. However, Jr KOR DeAndre Cobb blunted the Rutgers momentum with a 94-yard KOR to tie the score at 21-21 midway through the 2nd Quarter. After another Rutgers 3-n-out – on of many more to come – Michigan State took the lead with a 6-play, 67-yard TD drive culminating in a 27-yard TD by Hayes on a perfectly executed screen pass against a 7-man rush. Following another Rutgers punt, the Spartans closed the half with a 10-play, 63-yard, 1:14 drive resulting in a 37-yard FG for a 31-21 halftime lead. Rutgers was on the ropes.
Rutgers received the 2nd Half kickoff but suffered a knockout blow when Hart threw an INT that OLB RS Sr Monquiz Wedlow returned 29 yards for a TD. Rutgers gained only one first down on three subsequent 3rd Quarter possessions while Michigan State added a 30-yard FG. The Spartans switched to a run-oriented ball control strategy from their spread offense midway through the 3rd Quarter but nonetheless added a 24-yard FG early in the 4th Quarter after a 10-play, 46-yard, 6 minute drive. Rutgers capped the scoring with a 5-play, 31-yard, TO induced, penalty-aided TD drive that ended with a 2-yard Leonard TD run.
A game that started promisingly, ended disappointingly. Early in the game, the Scarlet Knights made big plays against a legitimate Division IA opponent. However, early leads dissipated in a slew of defensive and special teams breakdowns. Rutgers couldn't stop the Spartan passing attack. Meanwhile, Michigan State stuffed the Scarlet Knight running game and tightened the coverage on Rutgers' receivers. Rutgers could not adjust and floundered offensively for the final 40 minutes. The defense was spared further embarrassment when Michigan State Head Coach John L. Smith shifted the emphasis of the Spartan offense to its running game over the final 23 minutes. The Michigan State game showed that Rutgers is closing the gap with big time Division IA programs. However, the game also revealed that growing pains are going to be the inevitable cost of playing that young talent. Here's an analysis of how Rutgers performed relative to my perceived keys to the Michigan State game. Original text is presented in bold italics.
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). Rutgers Head Coach 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.
Michigan State dominated Rutgers special teams in both the kicking and return games.
Spartan kicker Jr Dave Raymer put 7 of 9 KOs into the end zone for touchbacks, thus neutralizing Nate Jones as a KOR weapon. Meanwhile, none of Rutgers K So Michael Cortese's 5 KOs reached the end zone. Plus, Michigan State returned a KOR for a TD. This KOR was particularly damaging because it immediately erased the euphoria of the preceding 61-yard INT return. Spartan P Sr Jason Daily averaged 52 yards per punt, including a 74-yard punt that rolled 20 yards to the RU4 after RS So PR Tres Moses failed to catch it. Meanwhile, RS Fr P Joe Radigan struggled to a 40-yard average that included punts of 25, 30, and 37 (20 yard kick and a 17 yard roll) yards. Radigan setup one 2nd Half Spartan drive with a 30-yard punt from the RU9. The Spartans averaged 49 net yards per punt compared to 38 net yards for Rutgers as the Scarlet Knight punt return team offset a good performance by their punt coverage team.
Rutgers needed its special teams to be the equalizer on the Michigan State home field. Instead, Michigan State won the field position battle and outscored the Scarlet Knight special teams 7-0.
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 former Head Coah Bobby 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.
Michigan State may yet prove susceptible to a rushing attack. But Rutgers was not able to prove this supposition. The Spartan DLine completely dominated the line of scrimmage. Spartan DL repeatedly stalemated, beat, or blew up Scarlet Knight OL, TEs, and FBs. Michigan State frequently penetrated the backfield on running plays, forcing the Rutgers TB out of the designed holes. As a result, other Spartan defenders – blocked away from the designed hole – were able disengage and make the tackle elsewhere. Sr LT Mike Williamson was victimized the most. Spartan DE RS Jr Clifford Dukes manhandled Williamson.
Michigan State stuffed the Rutgers rushing offense with its base 4-3 defense. Smith did not need an eighth man on the line of scrimmage. The DLine fully occupied the Rutgers OLine, freeing the LBs to make tackles at the point of attack. Michigan State held Rutgers to 2 yards or less on 19 of 29 designed runs. Six of the 19 were TFLs (or no gain). Only 3 runs gained at least 5 yards. The longest run was 15 yards. Rutgers again ran almost exclusively between the tackles but Michigan State's superior team speed was evident any time a Scarlet Knight tried to bounce outside to daylight – they were run down before they could turn upfield. Leonard ran exclusively as the TB or the single RB. The FBs –Leonard and Jr Cedric Brown – had no carries.
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, departed. 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.
The Buffalo game was a portent of the Michigan State game. The Spartan WRs abused the veteran Rutgers CBs, who generally played loose man-to-man coverage that conceded the short and intermediate routes. Fr CB Derrick Roberson was particularly victimized in limited action. Schiano elected to defend the Spartan's base 3WR formation with his base 4-3 Cover 2 (two deep zone) defense. Unfortunately, that left the SLB to cover the slot WR. In reality, the SLB was in no man's land – inside the WR but outside the tackle box where he could effectively defend neither run nor pass. Although the spread offense is predicated upon quick throws and precise timing, Rutgers' large cushions conceded a free release and short/intermediate throws to the Spartan WRs.
Smoker completed 15 of 23 passes for 293 yards, 3 TDs, and 2 INTs in the first half alone. Of those 23 attempts, 19 were short/intermediate routes – slants, outs, ins, flares, screens, curls, sidelines, hitches, and crossings. The large cushions allowed Michigan State to push many of the routes into the intermediate zones. Smoker gained 10+ yards on 12 of his 15 completions. Despite this focus on short passes, Schiano refused to tighten the coverage. The Rutgers CBs aligned in press coverage only 9 times the whole game. Smoker threw deep against press coverage only three times – a 27-yard corner route to Shabaj, a fade to RS Sr WR Ziehl Kavanaght on which Nate Jones needlessly committed pass interference, and a fade to So WR Matt Trannen on which Trannen pulled down Jr CB Eddie Grimes but nonetheless drew a defensive pass interference penalty. Otherwise, Smoker threw deep only three other times all game – an incomplete fade to So WR Kyle Brown on the first play from scrimmage, the 51-yard wheel route to Hayes (who was covered by a safety), and the 62-yard out-n-up to Shabaj (who was covered by the SLB supported by the safety).
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 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 8-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.
Smith never needed an 8-man front to stop the anemic Rutgers rushing offense. And he typically rushed five men – his four DL and Wedlow. The Spartans sacked Hart 4 times for 34 yards. But Michigan State only got Hart once in the 1st Half. Generally, the OLine provided Hart with time to read the defense and make his progressions. Sr LT Mike Williamson gave up two sacks on which Dukes bullrushed Williamson right back into Hart. Although the pass protection was generally effective, Michigan State was not forced to blitz heavily because Rutgers shortened its passing game in response to press coverage by the Spartan CBs.
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.
Rutgers committed two penalties. One was very costly. Wedlow intercepted Hart on the opening 2nd Half possession and returned the pick 29 yards for a clinching TD and a 38-21 Spartan lead. Rutgers forced 2 TOs and recovered a third, converting these miscues into 14 points.
Rutgers built its 21-14 2nd Quarter lead on big offensive plays and 2 defensive TOs. On the first, Beckford intercepted a QB throwback to Smoker at the RU31 midway through the 1st Quarter. Beckford made a great read on the trick play and was one step away from breaking a long return but Spartan RS Sr RT Steve Stewart collared Beckford after an 8-yard gain. Unfortunately, Rutgers could not capitalize on the good field position. Midway through the 2nd Quarter, Haw jumped an out route and, when Smoker threw to the slant on a miscommunication with his intended receiver, Haw caught the gift and returned it 61 yards for a TD and 21-14 Scarlet Knight lead.
Midway through the 4th Quarter, Spartan CB So Darren Barnett intercepted Hart on an underthrown fade route to Fr WR Willie Foster. Michigan State returned the favor immediately when backup QB RS Fr Drew Stanton fumbled the snap and RS Jr DT Gary Gibson recovered at the MS31. Two roughing the passer penalties moved Rutgers to the MS4 and Leonard scored two plays later.
Winning the 1st Half TO battle enabled Rutgers to take early leads. But 2nd Half TOs by the Scarlet Knights put the game out of reach.
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.
Hart started the game red hot, completing 5 of 8 1st Quarter passes for 170 yards, 4 first downs, and 2 TDs. His first pass was a slant route to Tucker that enabled Tucker to split the two-deep coverage and outrun the Spartan secondary. Hart moved Rutgers to the edge of scoring position on its third possession before he made a poor decision on a 4th-n-5 curl to Moses in heavy traffic. But Hart bounced back on the next possession with the drag route to Leonard and the post route to Johnson for a 7-yard TD. The young QB staked the Scarlet Knights to early leads on the road and hushed the home crowd.
But Hart's momentum had already changed, imperceptively at first. After Tucker's TD, Smith put his CBs in press coverage to deny the quick, short routes The Rutgers WRs couldn't get off the line of scrimmage cleanly and, with his timing disrupted, Hart struggled with his accuracy and decision-making. Hart completed only 4 of 9 2nd Quarter attempts for only 36 yards and one first down. Hart converted another first down on a pass interference penalty against Clark Harris on a corner route. Although the deeper fade routes were successful, Hart primarily threw short (7 of 10 2nd Quarter passes). The Spartans limited YAC and the Scarlet Knights offense sputtered.
Hart crumbed under the mounting pressure in the 3rd Quarter. He was rattled after tripping over RS Sr C Marty P'zmuka on the opening play. Two plays later, Hart never saw Wedlow underneath and Wedlow intercepted Hart, returning the pick 29 yards for a TD. Hart was 0 of 5 in the 3rd Quarter. A pass interference call against Jr WR Jerry Andre was Rutgers' only first down of the quarter. Hart recovered slightly in the 4th Quarter against the Michigan State backups, completing 5 of 9 passes for 60 yards and 2 first downs.
Hart finished the game completing 14 of 31 passes (45%) for a career-high 266 yards, 2 TDs, and 2 INTs. He was brilliant in the 1st Quarter – in full command of the west coast offense. He was terrible thereafter, completing only 9 of 22 passes for 96 yards and 2 first downs. Hart's inaccuracy and inability to stretch the field stifled a Rutgers offense already lacking a running game. Considering that his receivers gained 125 of his 266 passing yards after two catches, Hart had a poor game overall. Unfairly burdened with the entire offense, he withered under the pressure.
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.
Jones was a non-factor as a KOR because Rayner put 7 of 9 KOs into the end zone for touchbacks. Jones returned two KOs for 42 yards. Defensively, Jones made only 4 tackles after combined gains of 47 yards. Midway through the 1st Quarter, Trannen beat Jones, who was giving a 10-yard cushion, on a hitch for 17 yards. Jones was also flagged for pass interference on a fade route to Kavanaght. Jones had inside position but needlessly pushed Kavanaght before looking back for the football. Otherwise, Smoker generally left Jones alone and instead picked on Haw and Roberson or the LBs underneath.
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.
Leonard is rapidly emerging as the workhorse of the Rutgers offense. TB or FB. Blocker, runner, or receiver. Leonard has a knack for making plays. Schiano wanted a FB who could turn a short catch into a long gain. He has one.
Leonard stunned the Michigan State crowd late in the 1st Quarter when he caught the ball on a drag route one yard behind the line of scrimmage and turned the corner for a 72-yard gain. The play led to Rutgers' second TD and a 14-7 lead at the end of the 1st Quarter. Unfortunately, Hart ignored Leonard as a safety valve receiver out of the backfield and instead forced throws into tight coverage. Leonard had only one other reception – a 2-yard gain on a premature screen pass that the Spartan DLine detected and overwhelmed. With Justise Hairston ineffective at TB, Leonard saw substantial action as the TB and single RB. Leonard carried 12 times for 31 yards – nine as the TB and three as the RB. Leonard struggled as well because the OLine simply couldn't open holes. Other than a 15-yard run, he barely gained positive yardage.
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.
Harris had a quiet game with only 2 receptions for 16 yards and a first down. Otherwise, Harris struggled against the Spartan's tight interior coverage. Hart threw 5 passes to Harris but completed only 2 – a 7-yard crossing route for a first down midway through the 1st Quarter and a 9-yard crossing route early in the 4th Quarter. Harris also drew a pass interference penalty on a corner route early in the 2nd Quarter. Hart threw incomplete to Harris on 2nd Quarter crossing route and a 4th Quarter out pattern.
Overall, Hart targeted his TEs on 8 passes, completing only three for 23 yards, a first down, and a TD (plus 19 yards and 2 first downs on two pass interference calls). Sr TE Ray Pilch was targeted unsuccessfully three times but drew a pass interference penalty on the goal line. On the following play, Hart found Johnson in the end zone on a post route for a TD and a 14-7 Rutgers lead.
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.
The placekickers were a non-factor as Rutgers entered scoring position only twice all game. And scored TDs both times.
Offensive Player of the Game – So WR Shawn Tucker: Tucker had his best game as a Scarlet Knight, finishing with 5 receptions for 118 yards, 2 first downs, and a TD. Hart threw 10 of his 31 passes to Tucker. Tucker fired the small Rutgers crowd with his sudden 65-yard TD reception off a slant route on the third play of Rutgers' first possession. Tucker showed gamebreaking speed on this TD reception as he ran away from the Michigan State secondary. Midway through the 2nd Quarter, Tucker made a one-handed catch on a crossing route for an 8-yard gain. Tucker was quiet during the next two quarters as Hart threw incomplete to Tucker threw times and was intercepted on a fourth attempt. Tucker caught an out pattern for a 5-yard gain early in the 4th Quarter and followed with two 20-yard receptions late in the 4th Quarter.
Defensive Player of the Game – Jr DT David Harley: It is difficult to honor anybody on a defense that yielded 485 yards 30 points, including 332 yards and 24 points in the 1st Half. Many of the DBs made some nice plays but were also victimized on some ugly plays. I'm going to toss the game ball to one of the unsung guys on the DLine. Harley had 5 tackles, including 2 TFLs, and a pass deflection in the red zone. Harley was the most disruptive force on a Rutgers DLine that wasn't very disruptive.
Special Teams Player of the Game – Fr LB DeVraun Thompson: Thompson popped Spartan KOR JUCO transfer Jr DeAndre Cobb in the 1st Quarter on the KO following Rutgers opening score. The collision drove Cobb backwards 5 yards but Cobb maintained his balance and eluded the initial tacklers for a 24 yard return to the MS30. Thompson learned his lesson and took Cobb down at the MS15 on the next kickoff. Thompson later tackled Shabaj at the MS18 after Rutgers final score late in the 4th Quarter. Thompson was the best player in a unit that was generally outplayed by their Spartan counterparts.
Best Run – FB Brian Leonard: No, not Leonard's 15-yard 2nd Quarter rumble through the left side on a trap play, where he broke a tackle for another five yards. The best run occurred late in the 1st Quarter with the score tied at 7-7, after Leonard caught a 1st down pass on a drag route a yard behind the line of scrimmage. He beat Spartan ILB RS So Seth Mitchell to the sideline, turned upfield, stiff-armed Mitchell, broke Mitchell's tackle attempt at the RU20, ran past RS Jr FS Jason Harmon, used TE Ray Pilch's block on RS So SS Eric Smith, broke Smith's tackle attempt at the RU45, and cutback past RS Jr CB Roderick Maples at the MS30 before Maples finally tackled Leonard at the MS18. That was a lot of work for one play. And a nice assist to Pilch for his downfield blocking that prevented Leonard from being pushed out of bounds before midfield.
Best Pass – QB Ryan Hart to WR Tres Moses: Hart did not make a lot of nice throws. He made the easy throws but missed an awful lot. Midway through the 1st Quarter, with the score still tied at 7-7, Hart faced a 3rd-n-19 from the RU41. Hart floated a beautiful fade to a leaping Moses on the Spartan sideline for a 19-yard gain and a Rutgers first down. Hart also threw a nice 7-yard TD pass to Sam Johnson after looking off the FS.
Best Catch – WR Tres Moses: Early in the 2nd Quarter, with Rutgers leading 14-7, Rutgers faced a 3rd-n-10 at the RU15. Moses ran another fade route down the Spartan sideline against press coverage. Moses again made a leaping catch and landed with one foot barely in bounds. Moses gained 23 yards and a Rutgers first down, moving the Scarlet Knights from the shadow of their own goal posts.
Best Hit – CB Eddie Grimes: Thompson would have earned this game ball with his hit on Rutgers' first KO but Thompson didn't bring down Cobb. So we look elsewhere. Late in the 2nd Quarter. The score tied at 21-21. Michigan State has 2nd-n-8 at the RU27. Smoker tosses a deep out to So WR Aaron Alexander near the RU10. Grimes, who is covering an out pattern in the flat, drops back and drills Alexander from the outside and underneath, knocking out the football in the process. Though Grimes apparently took the worse of the collision, it was a great hit that disrupted the reception. Unfortunately, Grimes efforts were for naught as Michigan State scored on a 27-yard screen pass on 3rd down.
Coming Next: Non-Conference Preview, Part 3. I'll continue my pre-season tour of the non-conference schedule with a look at Week 3 opponent – hapless Army. I'll review lost starters, expected replacements, and incoming recruits.
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