Grading Michigan State's embarrassing loss to Rutgers
On a global scale, 2020 has not been so great. East Lansing appears to be no exception.
Not 1, not 2, but 7 turnovers plagued Michigan State in Mel Tucker’s debut inside Spartan Stadium as Rutgers never trailed en route to its 38-27 win over the Spartans.
There wasn’t much to be positive about for Tucker and his team after losing to a team that had zero conference wins in all of 2019 and scored just 6 touchdowns in B1G play.
Michigan State wasn’t scheduled to contend in the Big Ten this year, but it also wasn’t slated to help end a 21-game conference losing streak by the Scarlet Knights. This season was never going to be enjoyable, but the Spartans could be in for a very long season.
If Michigan State had its hands full with Rutgers in Week 1, Halloween is going to be quite a fright with a trip to Ann Arbor.
As anticipated, Rocky Lombardi got the first start of the year as Michigan State looks to replace Brian Lewerke. Lombardi took every snap on Saturday as Theo Day and Payton Thorne watched from the sideline. Not much was expected of the redshirt junior, but to be fair, he wasn’t the reason the Spartans lost the game.
Lombardi finished 31 of 44 for 319 yards, 3 touchdowns and 2 interceptions. He had a few exciting plays, like a 50-yard touchdown to explosive Western Michigan transfer Jayden Reed and a 30-yard touchdown to Jalen Nailor in the third quarter.
Told y’all Jayden Reed is SPECIAL pic.twitter.com/XNXIvh1voN
— Cam Mellor (@CamMellor) October 24, 2020
But there were times when his inexperience showed, a few occasions throwing misfires to Nailor when the QB thought the receiver was going to run a different route than he did, most obviously on Lombardi’s interception in the second quarter.
Let’s check in on Rocky Lombardi.. pic.twitter.com/oFFMNkYJ99
— Go For Two Podcast (@GoForTwoPod) October 24, 2020
Even with the chemistry still being a work in progress, there is reason for optimism with the receivers this year. Reed had 11 catches for 128 yards and 2 scores and looked about as good as the offseason hype suggested. Nailor added 84 yards on 6 catches, a solid stat line for a receiving corps trying to replace its leading receivers from 2019.
What was thought to be the strength and backbone of this team was Michigan State’s biggest weakness against Rutgers. Netting 60 yards on 38 carries isn’t going to get it done moving forward or help relieve pressure off an inexperienced QB.
Perhaps the most puzzling decision of the day was how little Elijah Collins was involved. Collins, the leading returning rusher in the Big Ten, started on the bench and didn’t receive a carry until Michigan State’s third drive of the game.
In his place as the starter was Connor Heyward, who lost his starting job to Collins early in the 2019 season and entered the transfer portal this winter before deciding to return to East Lansing. Heyward and Collins split carries with true freshman Jordon Simmons, who led the Spartans with 43 yards on 14 carries. Simmons had 1 of the team’s 5 fumbles.
An experienced offensive line struggled all day to open lanes for running backs or provide much of a clean pocket for Lombardi. The Spartans frequently ran the ball for little to no gain on early downs, setting up less-than-ideal third-down situations.
Defense/Special Teams: C+
Sure Rutgers put up 38 points, but turnovers by the Michigan State offense were really the prime culprit for that.
Tucker and Scottie Hazelton’s defense held Rutgers to 270 yards and forced 3 turnovers. Tackling wasn’t always great, as is to be expected in Week 1, but the Spartans got to Rutgers QB Noah Vedral for 2 sacks and returned his lone interception for a touchdown.
Safety Xavier Henderson and linebacker Antjuan Simmons proved worthy of their preseason hype. Simmons led the team with 11 tackles, and Henderson had a big tackle on 3rd down late in the game to force a Rutgers field goal and keep Michigan State in the game.
The Spartans were perfect in the kicking game, as Matt Coghlin connected on all 3 extra points and made 2 field goals, including an impressive boot from 48.
Bryce Baringer didn’t have to punt often, thanks to the bevy of Spartans turnovers, but his 2 punts did average over 50 yards and he downed one inside the 20.