Perceived progress from Rutgers brought to screeching halt in blowout loss to Michigan State
EAST LANSING, Mich. — Far from anyone’s wildest expectations were the results of Saturday’s matchup between the Rutgers football team and defending champions Michigan State, a game that was crucial in determining how the chips fell in the Big Ten East standings.
But it wasn’t up to the visiting Scarlet Knights, who have outplayed expectations this season, to rise up to the level of the Spartans but rather the hosts — who had an incredibly steep fall from the perch of the conference to its basement. The teams came in with identical 2-7 overall records, both winless in conference play and looking to avoid finishing dead last in the Big Ten East — Rutgers for the second straight year, the Spartans for the first time ever.
Both teams lost close, in-conference games that they could’ve — and should’ve — won.
Something had to give.
Someone had to win this game and based on the last few weeks of play, in which the Knights lost by a combined 5 points to Minnesota and Indiana and seemed to be coming closer to the desired complete game, picking Rutgers to win didn't seem too crazy before the game.
But it was Michigan State that left Spartan Stadium with its first Big Ten win of the season — and boy, what a way to get it.
The hosts looked like the Spartans (3-7, 1-6) of years past, holding the Knights (2-8, 0-7) scoreless and tearing their defense to shreds on the ground and through the air in a 49-0 clobbering in front of 73,301 in East Lansing.
“That was a team that was 2-7 but did not see that on the field from the film we had watched in our preparation,” said head coach Chris Ash. “Got a lot of players that played a lot here and been a part of a lot success … You go down their roster of guys that are playing this year and played last year in the national semifinals, there’s a lot of players that played. For whatever reason, it hasn’t necessarily gone the way they wanted but they’re still a good football team.”
After holding Indiana to just 147 yards on the ground last week, Rutgers regressed to its mean as the second-worst rush defense in the Big Ten, giving up 277 yards and 3 touchdowns to nine different rushers.
Sophomore Madre London reached the endzone twice in the second half when the game was in the bag, but it was his classmate L.J. Scott who led the Spartans backfield on the day. He gathered 122 yards on 20 carries in two and one half quarters of action, including the final touchdown of a dominant 35-0 first half for Michigan State.
Scott also paced the Spartans’ offense on their first touchdown drive of the game, rushing for 46 of the 58 yards they took to reach the endzone, but it was Josiah Price who caught a 3-yard dart from quarterback Tyler O’Connor to open the scoring midway through the first quarter.
O’Connor and Price would connect again on another short touchdown in the redzone but not before the Michigan State quarterback showed off his arm with a 50-yard touchdown completion to Trishton Jackson a drive earlier.
In contrast, the Knights were held to 109 total yards rushing, with almost half coming in the fourth quarter from backup true freshman quarterback Tylin Oden when the game was well out of reach.
“We struggled to get anything going offensively up front with the run game, struggled to stop the run up front on defense, and if you can’t control the line of scrimmage, you really have no chance to win a football games,” Ash said. “We got dominated from the start to the finish up front on both sides of the ball.”
By the time Oden came into the game, the Spartans were deep into their third and fourth unit, allowing him the space and time to gain 40 yards with his feet.
Starting quarterback Giovanni Rescigno didn’t have anywhere near as much luck. The Warren, Michigan, native known for his dual-threat abilities didn’t factor in a single rushing attempt in his homecoming and wasn’t much more efficient with his arm, throwing for just 40 yards on 6-for-16 passing.
He threw an interception two plays and 18 seconds after the Spartans opened the scoring, handing them an early 14-0 lead.
"I just misread it. Should've handed it off. The free safety came down and just jumped the route," Rescigno said of the pick-six, the first of his two interceptions on the day. “We couldn't really bounce back from the couple touchdown deficit, so we didn't really bounce back well enough.”
While the final score may not be indicative of it, Michigan State was perhaps Rutgers’ best chance of winning a Big Ten game in Ash’s first season.
The loss brings the Knights to 2-8 on the season with two games to go — first a primetime game against rival No. 10 Penn State under the lights of High Point Solutions Stadium next Saturday night and then a trip to College Park to face fellow first-year head coach DJ Durkin and Maryland in their season finale.
A win would point the rebuilding program in the right direction and bring a positive ending to a difficult first season for Ash and his coaching staff. As he pointed out in his postgame press conference, Rutgers has a solid base to build off of, with 9 of today’s 11 starters on defense and most of the special teams units returning next season.
But for those who will be moving on from the program, either to the National Football League or to the next chapter in their lives after graduation, these two games are their final chances to suit up for Rutgers.
To them, it’s do-or-die.
“Must wins, especially for me, and I think I speak for the rest of the seniors,” said fifth-year senior defensive tackle Darius Hamilton of the final two games of the season. “You wanna leave on a high note, a highest note as we possibly can. So I’m definitely attacking this week the same way. Time to get back to work, time to get a W.”