Michigan State football grades: Low marks for offense, coaching in loss to Rutgers
Lansing State Journal columnist Graham Couch grades the Spartans performance in their loss to Rutgers on a scale of 1-10.
MSU’s offense did a few things well, mostly in the passing game, with Jayden Reed and Jalen Nailor showing they can be playmakers in space once they have the ball in their hands. But when you turn the ball over six times on offense and average 1.6 yards per carry — as an offense intent on imposing its will on the ground and protecting the football — you’ve failed spectacularly. MSU's got issues up front and at running back, where Elijah Collins didn't start and didn't look like the same back as a year ago. Rocky Lombardi did some good things throwing the ball, allowing Reed and Nailor to make plays, though he’s yet to show accuracy deep. He’s fearless and a sturdy athlete who seems like a strong leader, which is probably the right makeup to quarterback this particular MSU team.
There were some alarming mishaps — big plays by Rutgers that looked way too easy. But a good portion of Rutgers’ 38 points aren’t really on MSU’s defense. The Scarlet Knights began in MSU territory five time after turnovers by MSU's offense, resulting in three of the Scarlet Knights’ touchdowns. This was the Spartans’ first game in a new defense, a 4-2-5, which includes several tactical changes. I thought they were better in the second half and fairly solid against traditional run plays overall, allowing 2.6 yards per carry. They came away with a couple turnovers, too. MSU did struggle defending third downs, especially early on, which helped Rutgers get going. But MSU’s defense didn’t play beneath expectations. Expectations just weren’t that high. And Rutgers is clearly improved offensively from what we've seen over the last four seasons.
SPECIAL TEAMS: 6
Matt Coghlin looks like he’s found his groove again after an up-and-down 2019 season. He made kicks of 45 and 48 yards, helping the Spartans back to within two scores at halftime. Bryce Baringer averaged 50 yards on two punts. And Jayden Reed and Jalen Nailor each had one return with some juice to it. As a tandem on kick returns, I think they have a chance to be special. Nailor also muffed one punt return, turning it over to Rutgers. MSU’s kickoff coverage wasn’t very good, nor was the depth on its kickoffs. The Spartans also had to use a timeout before a field goal because they had a player coming on late. Coghlin made the kick after the timeout whistle and, fortunately for MSU, made it again when it counted.
Aggressive decision-making in concert with conservative play-calling is a maddening combination. Mel Tucker and Co. did this repeatedly Saturday, going for it on fourth down with low-percentage running plays — because everything MSU tries to do in the run game is low-percentage. I didn’t agree with the decision to go for it on fourth-and-3, rather than try a 38-yard field goal down eight points in the third quarter. That would have put MSU a score away from taking the lead and kept momentum on the Spartans side. Instead, after a failed run, Rutgers stayed in control. You take the points there.
I did think MSU’s defensive coaches did a nice job with second-half adjustments, adding bodies to put pressure on Rutgers in the backfield. And I liked that Tucker didn’t overreact to this loss, which I thought set an important tone for a team that doesn’t need that burden. All of that said, MSU looked less prepared for this moment than Rutgers. The Spartans looked less prepared than a lot of Big Ten teams this weekend. Tough circumstances, sure, and I don't think it’s fair to judge Tucker and his staff long-term from one game. But this was not a good start.
The best news for MSU on Saturday is that Maryland looks truly awful, so there’s a good opportunity for a win on the schedule late in November. MSU might have a chance to compete with Iowa in two weeks in Iowa City, too. But next week in Ann Arbor, given what we saw from Michigan on Saturday night in Minneapolis and what we just saw from MSU ... Spartan fans, cover your eyes.
Contact Graham Couch at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @Graham_Couch.