Rutgers closes season with sluggish, unremarkable 40-7 loss to No. 16 Michigan State
Freshman quarterback Johnathan Lewis throws for 98 yards on 6-16 line
With 50 seconds remaining in the first quarter, freshman quarterback Johnathan Lewis was inserted into the game.
On his second drive, he escaped pressure and unloaded a 42-yard missile to freshman running back Raheem Blackshear for the score to cut the lead in half.
The Rutgers football team closed its 2017 campaign Saturday night with a loss, but the seeds are already planted for 2018.
Despite the Scarlet Knights (4-8, 3-6) falling to No. 16 Michigan State (9-3, 7-2) by a score of 40-7, Saturday night's season finale at High Point Solutions Stadium served as a small glimpse into Rutgers' future going forward.
"Obviously we have a lot of work to do," said head coach Chris Ash. "In my opinion, we made a lot of strides here this year, but obviously not enough. That's part of the rebuild. Each year, you've got to keep improving in certain areas and keep moving forward."
Lewis is no stranger to playing time in his first season on the Banks, but Saturday's matchup against the Spartans was the first time he worked primarily through the pass.
Throughout the season, as graduate transfer Kyle Bolin and junior Giovanni Rescigno traded off starting duties at quarterback, Lewis was a reliable backup in blowouts and red zone situations, where he could run the ball himself.
But Lewis was stripped of specialist status Saturday, entering the game and taking every snap from there on out, going 6-16 for 98 yards, with the Blackshear touchdown and two interceptions to boot. There wasn't much production through the air (or at all) for Rutgers, but it was enough to show the coaching staff at least knew it had to move in a new direction before the season closed.
"In my opinion, that's probably one of my worst games ever," Lewis said. "(I) just gotta keep learning. All of the coaches came up to me and said it was a learning experience heading into next year."
Similarly, Rutgers' strongest offensive unit of the season — its running backs — failed to show up on the ground, collecting 12 yards on 8 attempts. The team as a whole averaged just 1.2 yards per carry.
Even with a fairly dismal showing on offense, Rutgers somehow kept the game close throughout the first three quarters, and that largely comes down to Michigan State's own mistakes.
The Spartans lost 80 yards on nine penalties, many of which coming in crucial third-down situations in front of the end zone. False starts plagued the visitors on third down, as they found themselves settling for field goals instead of touchdowns on numerous occasions due to lost yardage.
Still, Michigan State generally took advantage of the Knights' weak third-down defense, posting a 13-20 line, thanks in large part to a quiet but strong performance from quarterback Brian Lewerke. Lewerke threw for 222 yards on a 21-31 clip, as Rutgers' secondary lacked in its coverage across the board, with 11 different Spartans recording receptions.
"That's a product of bad football," Ash said. "You know, that's what it is. We couldn't get off the field on third down, and we couldn't get first downs on offense. I hate to put this that bluntly, but there's no other way to sugarcoat it."
Combining poor coverage with flimsy tackling — a usual suspect in Knight losses — meant Michigan State could charge up the field without trouble for most of the game. Usually when one facet of the game isn't clicking, the other two can at least take on some of the burden. But the Knights lacked cohesion on both sides of the ball Saturday, leading to a slow, unremarkable Senior Day loss.
It was a defeat that capped off a rather unremarkable season despite the team improving by two wins from last year's campaign. Rutgers made mountainous strides in its three Big Ten wins — up from zero last season — but the team found ways to offset its big wins with disappointing losses, with Eastern Michigan, Ohio State and Indiana as chief examples.
In ways, the Knights' 2017 season had its peaks and valleys, and Ash closes his second year in Piscataway with a young offensive corps at the ready. As the seniors exit High Point Solutions Stadium a final time, there is a class of Ash recruits poised to take over. The clock is winding down on the Rutgers rebuild, and the 2017 season was a step forward.
But for the seniors, they won't be able to enjoy the results of the rebuild. Saturday's game against Michigan State was the last time they would lace up in a Rutgers uniform, and with four-plus years doing just that, it's hard to give that up in one night.
"I just went back down [to the field] and took it all in," said fifth-year senior left guard and captain Dorian Miller. "We came back up and broke it out as a team, but I just had to go back down and get one more look in the pads, the cleats and the uniform and kind of absorb everything."
For updates on the Rutgers football team, follow @TargumSports on Twitter.