Keys to the Michigan State Game

Michigan State will once again provide a great measuring stick for the Rutgers program in Schiano's fourth year. A victory over Michigan State is crucial to Rutgers season. His young team is still learning how to win. It is not hyperbolic to say the season hinges on this game. A win against Michigan State could propel Rutgers to an eight- or nine-win season. A loss could foreshadow a five-win season. Here are my five keys to the Michigan State game.


Michigan State is always a big game for me.  It's about family bragging rights.  Not only is my younger brother a Michigan State alum, but Rutgers and Michigan State played three times during the five years that he attended the Big Ten school.  A most timely coincidence.  I've seen each of the four games in this brief series.  As I write this article, I'm on a redeye flight heading back east for Round 5.  Last year, I ventured to East Lansing cautiously optimistic.  New Spartan Head Coach John L. Smith was rebuilding a program that former Head Coach Bobby Williams wrecked.  Meanwhile, Rutgers Head Coach Greg Schiano suddenly seemed to have accumulated talent and depth in his third season on the Banks.  I felt Rutgers had a chance.  Rutgers stunned the home crowd with an early big play and kept the heavily favored home team on its heels.  However, the Spartan's superior athleticism, compounded with Rutgers inexperience in key areas, enabled Michigan State (8-5, 5-3 Big Ten) to seize control of the game and subsequently cruise to a 44-28 win. 

The Scarlet Knights forced Michigan State 3-n-out on the opening possession.  On Rutgers' third play from scrimmage, QB Ryan Hart connected with WR Shawn Tucker on 65-yard TD after Tucker split the two-deep zone, silencing the Spartan faithful.  The lead was short-lived as TB Jaren Hayes beat sleeping WS 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 WLB William Beckford intercepted at the RU34 a QB throwback intended for QB Jeff Smoker from WR Agim Shabaj.  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 Brandon Fields pinned Rutgers on the RU10 with a 48-yard punt.  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 TE Sam Johnson on a post route for a 7-yard TD.  Rutgers led 14-7 at the end of the 1st Quarter.

Rutgers again stopped Michigan State but Fields again pinned Rutgers deep (RU4) with a 74-yard punt.  Rutgers picked up 2 first downs but eventually punted.  Smoker and Shabaj immediately burned FS 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 CB Brandon Haw intercepted a miscommunicated pass to Shabaj and returned the pick 61 yards for a TD.  However, 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 - one 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 seven-man rush.  Following another quick 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 SLB 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. 

Rutgers and Michigan State meet again in another early season encounter.  The Spartans will once again provide a great measuring stick for the Rutgers program in Schiano's fourth year.  The young Scarlet Knights put a scare into a pretty good Michigan State team on the road last year.  The Spartans are expected to slip a little this season without veteran QB Jeff Smoker at the helm of Smith's spread offense.  Meanwhile, Rutgers is positioned for a breakout season.  A victory over Michigan State is crucial to Rutgers season.  Rutgers follows Michigan State with home games against New Hampshire and Kent State before hitting the road for games against Syracuse and Vanderbilt.  Schiano has yet to beat a legitimate opponent on the road.  His young team is still learning how to win.  It is not hyperbolic to say the season hinges on this game.  A win in the season opener will give the young Knights confidence going to Syracuse and Nashville.  Road wins are difficult to envision if Rutgers can't win a big game at home.  A win against Michigan State could propel Rutgers to an eight- or nine-win season.  A loss could foreshadow a five-win season.  A seven-win bowl season is difficult to picture without a win over Michigan State.  Here are my five keys to the Michigan State game.


1.  CB Cushions.  Last year, 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 at least 10 yards on nine of those "short" passes.  The Rutgers CBs were yielding big cushions that gave the Spartans 10 to 15 yards at will.  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 was an experienced QB who was more than capable of dissecting a generous defense.  His likely replacement, RS Sr QB Damon Dowdell, hasn't played much in almost two years.  RS Fr QB Stephen Reaves has not played at all.  Schiano cannot afford to give Dowdell or Reaves easy throws by aligning his CBs ten yards off the line of scrimmage.  They must jam the Spartan WRs on the line of scrimmage and disrupt the timing of the short passing game.  The Scarlet Knight CBs must tighten their cushions and make Dowdell find open receivers.  The less margin of error that Dowdell has with his throws, the more erratic he is likely to be.  If Rutgers gives Dowdell easy pitch-and-catch throws with his receivers, he will blister the Scarlet Knight secondary much as did Smoker. 

2.  Pinching DEs.  The Spartan DLine completely dominated the line of scrimmage last season against Rutgers.  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.  Michigan State aggressively pinched their SDE inside the Rutgers OT, frequently penetrating the backfield on running plays and completely disrupting the blocking scheme.  As a result, Scarlet Knight TBs often tried bouncing the runs outside where other Spartan defenders - blocked away from the designed
hole - were able to easily disengage and make the tackle elsewhere.  Michigan State did not need even an eighth man on the line of scrimmage to create this mayhem.  It was total domination by the Spartan DLine.  Rutgers failed to even try to counter the Spartan's run defense strategy. 

The Michigan State game was only Rutgers second game with their new offense.  The Spartans were the first real challenge for the new system.  The Rutgers OLine improved as the season progressed and began dominating the line of scrimmage against some good  opponents.  Michigan State will provide a good barometer of that progress.  I expect the Spartans to again pinch their SDE aggressively since it worked so well last year.  The Rutgers OTs - RS Sr LT Ron Green and RS Jr RT Sameeh McDonald - must block down on Spartan SDE RS So Clifton Ryan and not allow him to get inside penetration, where he will take out the pulling OG on the Power G (FB and pulling OG leading the TB between the OT and TE).  Offensive Coordinator Craig Ver Steeg also must call more off-tackle runs and force the Spartans to defend the perimeter.  Rutgers must gain more than two yards on most of its runs.  The Scarlet Knights must be able to run their bread-n-butter Power G so that play action on early downs is a believable option. 

3.  Deep Passes.  It took three plays for Michigan State to tighten their secondary coverage last year.  After Jr WR Shawn Tucker split the Spartan safeties on a 65-yard slant pass, Michigan State played press coverage with its CBs.  The Spartan's took away the short routes to the Scarlet Knight WRs.  Rutgers successfully responded by throwing fade routes to its WRs.  Then, inexplicably, Rutgers stopped throwing deep and threw shorter and shorter. And Michigan State suffocated the short zones.  I expect the Spartans to again press their CBs since it worked last year.  Rutgers must throw deep on the press coverage and make Michigan State pay for gambling.  Whenever Rutgers pressed Michigan State last year, the Spartans immediately threw deep and Rutgers stopped pressing.  Rutgers must do the same to Michigan State.  The Scarlet Knight WRs must fight through the jams at the line of scrimmage.  They must run fade and skinny post routes past the beaten Spartan CBs.  The Rutgers TEs also must run more vertical routes.  Michigan State sat on the hook, crossing, and out routes last year.  Ver Steeg must run his TEs up the seam and to the corner.  RS So FB Brian Leonard gained 72 yards on a drag route last year.  The Spartans, who will jump the drag routes this year, could be vulnerable to a wheel route.  Rutgers must throw deep a few times a quarter and must complete at least one per quarter.  That will force the Spartan defense out of their press coverage and will open the short passing game.  Rutgers must gain at least 150 yards on deep passes. 

4.  Pass Rush.  Michigan State was in the lower half of the Big Ten in terms of sacks allowed (32).  The one-dimensional nature of the Spartan offense undoubtedly was part of the problem.  Opponents knew the Spartans were going to throw the football and opposing DLines came after Smoker.  The Spartan running game is not expected to be improved this year.  And the Spartan OLine, which was not very good last year, lost three starters and a backup.  The second unit has one experienced player.  Rutgers has an edge on its defensive line of scrimmage.  The Scarlet DLine is more talented and deeper than is the Spartan's OLine.  Rutgers must dominate the line of scrimmage on defense.  And must do so with its DLine.  Rutgers must bring sufficient pressure with the pass rush by its DLine to allow blitzing as a convenience and not a necessity.  If the Rutgers DLine can dominate, Schiano will be able to mix up his defenses and confuse the inexperienced Spartan QBs.  If Rutgers is forced to blitz to generate a pass rush, Michigan State will be able to counter those blitzes more effectively because they will be expecting the blitz.  If Rutgers doesn't need to blitz, then it can drop its LBs back into zone coverage and better cover the short passing zones that Michigan State targets so frequently. 

5.  Special Teams.  John L. Smith puts a strong emphasis on special teams.  The Spartans have two outstanding kickers in First Team All-Big Ten P RS So Brandon Fields and Sr PK Dave Rayner.  The Spartans dominated the field position battle against Rutgers last year as Fields averaged 52 yards per punt and Rayner put seven of nine kickoffs into the end zone.  Rayner also kicked three FGs.  Meanwhile, the Spartan return teams also contributed as Sr KOR DeAndra Cobb returned a 2nd Quarter kickoff 94 yards for a TD.  The Rutgers special teams were thoroughly outplayed.  With the single big exception of the TD allowed, the coverage teams played well.  The kickers struggled.  Jr PK Michael Cortese did not put a single kickoff into the end zone in five attempts.  Meanwhile, RS So P Joe Radigan was terribly inconsistent.  Although Radigan averaged 40 yards per punt, he had kicks of 25, 30, and 37 (20 yard kick and a 17 yard roll) yards.  Rutgers may not outplay Michigan State on special teams.  But the Scarlet Knights must not let the Spartan special teams outplay them, either.  Cortese must get his kickoffs into the end zone to match Rayner.  Radigan must improve his consistency, which will improve his average to around 45 yards per punt.  The Scarlet Knight kickoff coverage team must not allow any big returns that will shorten the field for a Spartan offense expected to struggle.  Same with the Rutgers punt coverage team.  The Rutgers KOR team must capitalize upon the few opportunities that Rayner will give them.  The punt return team could be Rutgers biggest edge.  But it has also been a tremendous problem in the past.  Rutgers can't afford any more miscues - muffs, punts rolling 20 yards, etc.  The Scarlet Knights need big plays from RS Jr PR Tres Moses. 


1.  Jr QB Ryan Hart.  As he was last year, Hart will be a staple on this list.  A west coast offense is only as good as its QB.  Since the offense uses a short passing game to control the ball, the QB must throw accurately and minimize his TOs.  In his first full season as the starter, Hart completed 59% of his passes but threw 19 INTs, which ranked Rutgers #102 nationally.  Against Michigan State, Hart completed 14 of 31 passes for 266 yards, 2 TDs, and 2 INTs.  He was brilliant in the 1st Quarter but terrible thereafter.  The Spartans quickly pressed the Scarlet Knight WRs and suffocated the short passing game.  After throwing deep successfully early in the game, Hart thereafter almost exclusively threw short into heavy coverage.  The INT early in the 2nd Half, which was returned for a Spartan TD, essentially put the game away for Michigan State. 

The Spartans will certainly press the Rutgers WR and dare Hart to beat them deep.  Hart must throw deep enough to force Michigan State out of its press coverage.  He must complete 65% of his passes for at least 300 yards.  Hart must throw at least two TD passes and no more than one INT.  He also must hit at least one deep pass per quarter to keep the Spartan defense honest.  The Spartan secondary was horrible last year and doesn't look much improved.  Hart must carve them to pieces. 

2.  Sr FS Jarvis Johnson.  Johnson isn't a SS.  He's a FS.  When Rutgers aligns in a Cover 1 scheme, Johnson is the lone deep safety.  That's the FS.  As such, he is often the last line of defense - all that stands between the opponent and a big TD.  Last year, Johnson led the team in tackles (97).  However, the defense yielded 59 plays of least 30 yards.  That's an average of five plays and at least 100 yards per game.  Johnson was often victimized on these big plays.  Against Michigan State, Johnson was caught cheating up on a curl route while Shabaj ran past him on an out-n-up pattern for a 62-yard TD.  Johnson was named a team captain this season.  A role that carries a heavy leadership burden.  As a leader, he can no longer repeatedly make the mental errors that result in big plays the wrong way.  Johnson is backstopping very inexperienced CBs who will be trying to suppress the Spartan's short passing game.  When a Spartan WR gets past a Scarlet Knight CB after a short pass, Johnson must be there to make the tackle.  When the Spartan QB throws deep, Johnson must be there to break up the passes.  Johnson must not give up any big plays.  He must make the last stops that will force the inexperienced Spartan QB to drive the full length of the field with long drives. 

3.  Sr CB Eddie Grimes.  Grimes was one of Schiano's many needlessly burned freshman redshirts in 2001, only seeing action on special teams.  He was the fourth CB in a three-player rotation in 2002.  Grimes finally saw significant playing time last year as a nickel CB and a dime S/OLB.  He struggled early last season, culminating with a knightmare performance covering Pittsburgh WR Larry Fitzgerald in which he yielded 200 receiving yards in one half.  However, Grimes finished the season with a strong November, during which he was arguably the best CB on the team.  This season, he is the most experienced CB, starting opposite one of two second-year players.  Schiano likes to put his CBs out in man-to-man coverage.  The physical Grimes will draw the assignment of covering 6-6 Jr WR Matt Trannon and 6-5 Sr WR Aaron Alexander.  With safety help likely cheating over towards the less experienced CBs opposite Grimes, Eddie may frequently find himself on an island with no deep help.  He must align tight enough to jump the short routes, making sure tackles to prevent easy 10- to 15-yard passes.  He also must not get beat deep.  Grimes must hold the opposition to less than 10 yards per catch and less than 50 yards total.  That's a tall order. 

4.   RS Sr C Ray Pilch.  Schiano spent six months searching for a replacement for former starting center Marty P'zmuka.  Five different players took practice repetitions at center.  Only one - Davon Clark - was adequate but Schiano dismissed Clark from the team after spring camp.  Desperate for an answer, Schiano asked former starting TE Ray Pilch to switch to center and gain the necessary size and strength.  Ever the team player, Pilch changed positions for the fourth time in four years.  Pilch walked on to the team as a TE in 2001.  He switched to FB in 2002 and back again to TE last year.  Now, he has had to learn a new position - including the responsibilities of leading the OLine, in only three months.  Pilch has added 20 pounds to his frame but he is still undersized at 260 pounds.  On the surface, that might not seem like a problem since most Scarlet Knight opponents - excluding West Virginia (3-3 stack) and Navy (3-4) - use a 4-3 defensive scheme, which typically leaves the center uncovered to block either DT or the MLB.  However, several opponents use an overshift 4-3 with a NT over the center and the SLB up on the LOS over the TE.  Michigan State is one such team. 

Pilch will be staring 6-3, 330 pound RS Jr NT Brandon McKinney in the face for 60 minutes.  Ray will have his hands full.  When Rutgers runs its bread-n-butter Power G, Pilch won't be responsible for McKinney but will instead have to step over and prevent the backside DT from filling the hole vacated by the pulling guard (and blowing up the play in the backfield).  Since he will only have to seal off the DT and won't be at the point of attack, the Power G should not pose a problem for Pilch.  Off-tackle and stretch runs will require Pilch to block McKinney while on the move, denying penetration that would blow up the run in the backfield before the TB can turn the corner.  Again, this should not be a challenging block.  However, isolation and lead draw runs will require Pilch to block McKinney at the point of attack.   Pilch will have to engage McKinney and turn him away from the hole.  That will be a big challenge since Pilch is spotting McKinney 70 pounds.  Pilch will also have to block McKinney on passes when McKinney is aligned over the Pilch.  Pilch must neutralize McKinney and prevent him from dominating the LOS.  If the announcers are calling McKinney's name a lot, it will be a long day for the Scarlet Knight offense. 

5.   Sr DT David Harley.  Harley showed glimpses of his potential last year as the best playmaker on the DLine after DE Raheem Orr.  However, Harley's conditioning was not satisfactory and he lacked the stamina needed to play regularly.  Harley has been in the program for a full year after transferring from Pasadena City College.  In better shape, Harley's play in spring camp was more consistent.  While the entire unit is expected to pick up the playmaking slack in Orr's absence, Harley is expected to be the best player in a DLine rotation that is more than two deep.  The Spartans have two new starters at OG.  The Michigan State rushing offense is predicated on slow-developing misdirection plays - draws and counters.  Harley must get penetration into the backfield and disrupt these plays before they start.  The Spartan passing game relies heavily upon short passes.  The timing of such passes minimizes the pressure from the outside.  Harley must bring an effective pass rush up the middle and flush the inexperienced Spartan QB to the waiting Scarlet Knight DEs. 

Coming Next:  Michigan State Game Balls.   A look back at the best performers and best plays in the Michigan State game. 

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