3 things to look for from Michigan State's offense against Rutgers
Taking over a new team and implementing a new system during a global pandemic is never ideal, but the scheduling gods in Chicago were on Mel Tucker’s side. In his debut as Michigan State’s head coach, Tucker’s Spartans drew Rutgers, arguably the B1G’s worst program and one also under new leadership as Greg Schiano makes his second debut for the Scarlet Knights.
Not many details have been shared about how the 2020 Spartans will look. From replacing Brian Lewerke to a defense in transition, Week 1 will be the first time the new era of Michigan State football begins to take shape publicly.
The Spartans open the season in East Lansing before immediately upping the ante in Week 2 in Ann Arbor, so jumping out to a fast start is a must. Here are 3 things to look for as Michigan State starts its season on Saturday (11 a.m. Central, BTN):
Who is QB1?
The presumed starter for Week 1 is Rocky Lombardi, but Tucker has been holding his cards close all offseason. Lombardi has the lead when it comes to experience, having played in 11 games during his first 2 years in East Lansing, highlighted by a 318-yard performance against Purdue in 2018.
With that said, it would be no surprise to see redshirt sophomore Theo Day or redshirt freshman Payton Thorne get the nod. Thorne has never thrown a collegiate pass but has been the focus of some high praise for his ability to push the ball down the field.
It also wouldn’t be surprising to see OC Jay Johnson enter the game with a pre-determined script to give 2 or all 3 guys an opportunity to lead a few drives. While Lombardi may have the clear edge in Week 1 due to experience, the new offensive staff may lean more on one of the younger guys as the season goes on with an eye toward 2021 and 2022.
Michigan State fans won’t be alone in their anticipation to see how the QB plot twists. Rutgers also has yet to announce its QB1 as the battle between Art Sitkowski and grad-transfer Noah Vedral rages on.
QB-to-Jayden Reed connection
The most exciting addition to this Spartans offense comes by way of 2018 Freshman All-American Jayden Reed. Michigan State’s passing game ranked 10th in the conference in passing efficiency in 2019, and the receiving corps took a huge hit this offseason in losing Cody White and Darrell Stewart Jr., so quickly finding a top-end target before the showdown in Ann Arbor is crucial.
Reed, now a redshirt sophomore, had 56 catches for 797 yards and 8 touchdowns for Western Michigan in 2018, and the Spartans starting signal-caller will be looking for a reliable target early as he tries to fend off his QB competition.
Running the ball with Elijah Collins will ultimately be Michigan State’s bread and butter as the season progresses, but the Rutgers secondary should allow for a few home-run swings as the game wears on and the Scarlet Knights have to dip into their second team.
The Scarlet Knights have a decent group of starters, including 2019 Rose Bowl Defensive MVP (while at Ohio State) Brendon White and fellow DBs Tre Avery, Avery Young and Christian Izien. But beyond them, Rutgers has little experience and many questions. Covering Reed and Jalen Nailor will be a challenge.
A strong start from the offensive line
Michigan State’s offensive line has been a sore subject since 2018, but all of that trial by fire should pay off in 2020.
Riddled by injury, the Spartans used 9 starting combinations on the line in 2018 and 7 last year. Thanks to that problem, however, the Spartans return 9 offensive linemen who started at least 1 game last season, even with senior Jordan Reid opting out for COVID-19 concerns.
Arguably the biggest weakness for Rutgers is its defensive line, which has been a major liability when it comes to generating pressure. Last year’s Scarlet Knights finished last in the BIG with 18 sacks. The strength of Rutgers’ defense may be its linebackers. While Chris Ash almost never dialed up blitzes, Schiano may change that.
Any success the Michigan State offense has this season really will hinge on its offensive line. If Collins is unable to find open lanes, there’s no proven QB to fall back on.
And if the MSU line doesn’t hold up against a questionable-at-best Rutgers front seven, facing perhaps the conference’s best defensive line in Michigan next week will be an absolute nightmare.