PISCATAWAY, NJ - After losing their previous two games against Big Ten opponents, the Rutgers Scarlet Knights had one last match in this three-game gauntlet. Their opponent looked the most beatable, too.
Although the Michigan State Spartans had gotten off to a 5-0 start and were ranked 11th on the AP poll, Greg Schiano and the Scarlet Knights knew how to play them. Last season, Rutgers forced an incredible seven turnovers against the Spartans and rode them to a 38-27 victory in East Lansing. This was the first game of Schiano's second stint.
Rutgers was able to force three turnovers on Saturday. Unfortunately, everything else from that inspired victory last season seemed absent. The Spartans, in spite of those turnovers, racked up a jaw-dropping total of 588 yards on offense to defeat the Scarlet Knights, 31-13. This was Rutgers' third straight loss.
The Scarlet Knights were only able to score 13 points despite racking up 377 yards of offense and only turning over the ball once. However, they weren't able to put up a momentum-changing big play on offense. In comparison, all four of Michigan State's touchdowns were on 60+ yard plays, including a 94-yard touchdown run that set a new record for the longest scoring play in the history of their program.
Rutgers was missing their best wide reciever, senior wideout Bo Melton, during the game due to a shoulder injury. This required quarterback Noah Vedral to spread the ball out to more receivers, and he did a solid job in doing so. The senior QB went 15-for-30 with 208 yards, and his top target was Shameen Jones, who made seven catches for 110 yards. Although Vedral did not throw for a touchdown, Rutgers did have a passing touchdown, as backup QB and Swiss army knife Johnny Langan threw a touchdown pass to Aron Cruickshank.
But the defense, which held strong in their first four games, struggled immensely for the second game in a row. Michigan State quarterback Payton Thorne went 16-for-27 with 340 yards, three touchdowns, and one interception. All three of his touchdown passes went for over 60 yards to the same target, Jalen Nailor. The junior receiver had a Tyreek Hill-esque game, with 221 receiving yards on only five catches, for an average of 44.2 yards per catch.
Nailor didn't even have the most impressive offensive performance for Michigan State. The Scarlet Knights have struggled all season with run defense, and they were terrorized by Spartans running back Kenneth Walker III. The junior transfer student was as slippery as a wet floor, as he made defenders miss all game long on his way to a staggering 232 rushing yards on 29 carries. The big run was a record setting 94-yard touchdown run that was the Spartans' longest play from scrimmage in their storied history.
Most of the scoring in the game would come in the first half. Michigan State would move to the Rutgers 22-yard line on the first drive of the game, but Walker was tackled for a loss, forcing the field goal unit on the field. The Spartans faked the kick, but Rutgers was prepared for it and tackled the runner short. The Scarlet Knights parlayed that huge play into a 9-play, 72-yard touchdown drive, featuring a 19-yard pass from Vedral to Cruickshank on 3rd-and-18. Johnny Langan finished the drive with a 4-yard touchdown pass to Cruickshank to give Rutgers a 7-0 lead.
The lead lasted less than a minute. On just the second play on their drive, Thorne threw a 63-yard bomb to the speedy Nailor to tie the game.
After an exchange of punts, Rutgers drove 73 yards to the Michigan State 7-yard line, assisted by a 27-yard completion to Jovani Haskins and a pair of personal fouls on the Spartans, one of which came on third down. However, the drive stalled inside the red zone and the Scarlet Knights settled for a 26-yard field goal by Valentino Ambrosio.
This failure to score a touchdown immediately became important, as Thorne connected with Nailor again on a deep pass. The former track player then evaded numerous Rutgers defenders to score another 63-yard touchdown to put Michigan State in front, 14-10.
Rutgers was forced to punt on their next drive, but a terrible snap by the Michigan State center resulted in a fumble recovery by Tyreem Powell, giving the Scarlet Knights a golden opportunity at the MSU 13-yard line. But on 3rd-and-8, a pass in the end zone to Shameen Jones fell incomplete; despite the Michigan State defender committing what appeared to be pass interference on the play, no flags were thrown. Rutgers again was held to a field goal, this time from 29 yards.
This missed call likely cost Rutgers a touchdown, and Michigan State took advantage right away. On the Spartans' first play on their ensuing drive, Thorne threw a 65-yard touchdown pass to Nailor again. Michigan State now had a 21-13 lead.
After another questionable no call on third down, Rutgers punted the ball away with the first half nearing its end. The Spartans looked to add to their lead before the end of the half, driving to the Rutgers' 10-yard line. However, they moved back 10 yards on offensive holding on what would have been a touchdown run for Walker, and on third down, an incomplete pass from Thorne left just one second left on the clock as a result of shockingly poor clock management from Spartans head coach Mel Tucker. Matt Coghlin lined up to attempt a 35-yard field goal, but Greg Schiano iced him twice with timeouts. Rutgers then rose to the occasion and blocked the kick as time expired.
The Scarlet Knights had significant momentum entering the second half thanks to the blocked kick, and they would get the ball to start the final 30 minutes. Unfortunately, the second half was full of missed opportunities for the offense, and missed tackles by the defense.
Rutgers punted on their first three drives of the second half. On one of these drives, Vedral threw a deep pass to Aron Cruickshank, but barely overthrew him as it fell incomplete. Had the throw been a hair less powerful, Rutgers likely would have a touchdown that put them back in the game.
Instead, Michigan State provided the dagger. On their third drive of the half, Walker seemingly had himself a normal first down run, but nobody on the Scarlet Knights to bring him down, as if he was covered in grease. Eventually, Walker broke free and even had enough time to high five a teammate in the middle of his run before waltzing into the endzone to complete a history-making 94-yard touchdown run. SHI Stadium was as silent as a library.
Even with the seemingly back-breaking run, Rutgers looked to respond in the fourth quarter, moving into the red zone, but wound up turning the ball over on downs. The drive lasted 16 plays and nearly seven minutes, but resulted in no points.
Michigan State moved to midfield, but Alijah Clack intercepted a pass from Thorne to give the Scarlet Knights another chance. Unfortunately, Vedral lost the ball while being sacked, and the Spartans recovered. This set up a 35-yard field goal for Coghlin, who set a new career record for field goals made by Spartan kickers. The score was now 31-13 late in the 4th, and the game was all but over. All that remained for Rutgers was a turnover on downs on a drive led by backup QB Cole Snyder.
What Does this Mean for Rutgers?
Rutgers still has some difficult opponents left on their schedule, such as Penn State and Maryland at the end of the season, but they have ended their most difficult stretch of the season; three straight games against ranked opponents, all of them in the same division. Regardless, this is a very tough loss for Rutgers, as they had numerous chances to keep the game closer, but ultimately the big plays by Michigan State did them in. So far this season, the Scarlet Knights' defense have excelled in minimizing yards on the smaller plays, but they'd frequently falter on the plays that gain huge chunks of yardage. Michigan State took full advantage of that, and the inability of Rutgers' offense to do something similar really hurt them, although not having Bo Melton available certainly affected that.
When all is said and done, the Scarlet Knights have lost 33 straight games against ranked opponents. Obviously, the team is still rebuilding, but this is a team they not only beat last year, but beat convincingly. Outside of those long touchdowns, Michigan State didn't look invincible, specifically on defense. It's never a good feeling to lose winnable games, and this certainly felt like one.
Fortunately, there are still plenty of games left in the year, and Rutgers needs to win just three to become bowl eligible. While the team is still rebuilding, a bowl appearance will certainly bring a degree of prestige to the program (thus boosting the recruiting process) and instill significant confidence into the players that will return next year. Outside of Penn State, Rutgers does not have any more ranked opponents left on the schedule, so now is the time to strike.
Next Up For Rutgers
Rutgers will hit the road next week as they take on Northwestern at Ryan Field. Northwestern had an excellent season last year, but always seem to be inconsistent, and enter next week with a middling record of 2-3. This is certainly a winnable game for the Scarlet Knights.
After that game, Rutgers will have a much-needed bye week.