East Lansing, MI – Michigan State football will take the field against Rutgers on Saturday for the 12th meeting between the two universities. MSU leads the overall series, 8-3, and hasn’t lost to the Scarlet Knights since they joined the Big Ten in 2014.
In 2019, the Spartans marched into SHI Stadium and left with a 27-0 victory over Rutgers.
Now, the two teams are set to kickoff Michigan State’s 124th season, and what better way to do so than sit down with Spartan Nation and Aaron Breitman, the managing editor of On The Banks, which covers all things Rutgers, to help us preview the matchup.
McLain Moberg: Last season, QB Artur Sitkowski entered the transfer portal but withdrew his name one day after Rutgers hired Greg Schiano to be their next head coach. With the depth chart released earlier this week, it became clear heading into week one Sitkowski was in competition with senior Noah Vedral. Will Schiano play them both? Or name a definitive starter before kickoff?
Aaron Breitman: Schiano continues to remain coy on who will actually start on Saturday and did leave open the possibility that both quarterbacks could play. However, I think Vedral is a natural fit for the spread offense that offensive coordinator Sean Gleeson has implemented. Vedral played at Nebraska under Scott Frost, who ran a similar system, and his ability to make plays on the run and in the short passing game should give him the first opportunity to be the starter.
Sitkowski has the better arm and showed some improvement last season after being thrown to the wolves unfairly as a true freshman. He is more of a traditional drop-back passer, which also isn’t a great fit for the personnel Rutgers has, as the offensive line is going to struggle once again this season. I wouldn’t rule his chances out completely and do think he will play this season at times regardless, but if Vedral can take the reigns and lead this offense to become close to average, it would mark major progress this season.
MM: Greg Schiano led the Scarlet Knights from 2001-2011, where he compiled a 68-67 record (56-33 in his final seven seasons), led Rutgers to six bowl appearances, and won the George Munger Award in 2006, which is presented to the NCAA Division I college football coach of the year.
In his return, what do you expect from him? How does the fanbase feel about Schiano being back?
AB: The fan base showed more passion and was more vocal than perhaps ever before in a united effort to bring back Greg Schiano as head coach for a second run. No one has had more success on the recruiting trail or on the field at Rutgers in the modern era than Schiano, and second best isn’t even close. While his jobs in between led to mixed success at best, he appears well-positioned to inject new life into the program. His recruiting ability and relationships locally have led to a solid 2021 class so far. He has the credibility of being successful at Rutgers previously that has inspired real hope that he can turn the program around a second time.
Schiano has hired a very credible coaching staff that is arguably the best in program history. Hiring Sean Gleeson as offensive coordinator gives Rutgers a chance to establish stability for the first time in over a decade, as well as run a spread system that is trendy and successful in the college game at the moment. He wisely retained Nunzio Campanile on staff, who was the only holdover from the previous regime, led the team in an interim capacity after Ash was fired last season, and is a major name in New Jersey high school and recruiting circles. There is also a lot of coaches on staff who have worked for Schiano before, including defensive coordinator Robb Smith, defensive line coach Jim Panagos, and linebacker coach Bob Fraser. Secondary coach Fran Brown is one of the best recruiters in the country and a respected teacher as well.
The biggest reason for hope for Rutgers fans regarding football is definitely the coaching staff, but it will take time.
MM: Michigan State opened up as a double-digit favorite over Rutgers. Do you think that assessment is fair considering both teams have new head coaches and quarterback competitions? What are three keys to victory if the Scarlet Knights were to upset MSU?
AB: I think week one spreads are a crapshoot in most games, and when you are the team that has a 21 game conference losing streak, it’s hard to complain. I think keys to victory for Rutgers are a fast start, winning the takeaway margin and special teams play.
I don’t expect Rutgers to jump out to a multiple score lead in the game, but they must come out with energy and avoid falling behind by multiple scores early. If they can establish some offensive rhythm and sustain drives, even if it doesn’t lead to a bunch of points, it will give the defense a chance to stay competitive the entire game. A troubling trend in the past two seasons was the defense would wear down in the second half due to the offense being unable to do much of anything.
The defensive mentality with Schiano back is all about swarming to the football and forcing takeaways. Rutgers has only averaged 1 takeaway in its last 25 games and only had 7 in 9 Big Ten games last season. If they want to win any games this season, they need to force multiple takeaways while protecting the football on offense.
The Scarlet Knights have arguably the best punter in the country in Adam Korsak, an AP preseason Second Team All-American and a solid kicker in Justin Davidovicz. Expect Rutgers to be much more aggressive under Schiano with its special teams' coverages, as the program led the country with close to 50 block kicks across a decade during his first tenure as head coach. In addition, they've added Wisconsin transfer Aron Cruickshank, last season's Second Team All-Big Ten Kick returner, which included a 95-yard touchdown against Oregon in the Rose Bowl last January. His potential to dramatically improve starting field position is a key to the season for the offense.
MM: In 2020, Rutgers won't walk in to a packed Spartan Stadium; due to the global pandemic, the Big Ten ensured fans would not be in attendance this year outside of players' family members.
Michigan State linebacker Antjuan Simmons spoke about the idea of a game without fans saying, "It's just going to be another game ... it's football. I'm not looking at it as any different than any other game I've ever played in."
Do the Scarlet Knights share the same sentiment? How do they feel about going on the road to an empty stadium?
AB: I think it will be an adjustment for both teams and probably favors Rutgers simply being the visiting team. I think it will feel more strange for the home teams playing in their own empty stadiums this season. Expect Schiano to have this team ready to compete and hungry to prove the doubters wrong. It's been a long couple years previously for this team, and I think they feel unburdened by it with the culture instilled by Schiano.
MM: Give Spartan Nation two players fans should look out for and why?
AB: Isaih Pacheco has a chance to become one of the best running backs in the conference this season. He has averaged 4.6 yards per carry in his first two seasons and rushed for 10 touchdowns with virtually no help on offense. I think Gleeson will utilize Pacheco even more effectively this season. His combination of speed and power will give him the opportunity to be a breakout star in the Big Ten this fall.
Tyshon Fogg is one of the best defensive players in the Big Ten and leads the defense at middle linebacker. He led the team with over 100 tackles last season, and the former 4-star recruit has steadily improved each year. The defense will be much more aggressive this season, and linebacker is the deepest position group. I think it will allow Fogg to be even more dominant this season.
MM: Prediction time: Final Score? Who Wins? Why?
AB: I expect both offenses to take some time to figure things out, and if I'm confident of anything in this game, it's taking the under. Rutgers held a lead in the fourth quarter in its last trip to East Lansing with one of its worst teams in recent memory. I think this team has a lot to play for with nothing to lose in this opener. That being said, the Spartans have more talent and depth, so I give them the edge to pull out a hard fought, tight season opener for both teams. Michigan State 16 Rutgers 13