Spartan Football Essentials: Rutgers Retrograde

Spartan Nation senior writer Jon Schopp analyzes Michigan State's season opening loss to Rutgers.
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OFFENSE

The first half of the new offense was worse than even the most pessimistic in Spartan Nation could have imagined. Turnovers galore, missed assignments aplenty, and a deeper confusion than you would've expected to open the year.

You can credit Rutgers Defense for showing up organized, hyped, and staying regularly opportunistic. But make no mistake, the first 30-minutes of the offensive execution was, in a word, offensive. It was so bad, MSU nearly knocked itself out for good before the half.

The offense looked so disjointed early that you couldn't really put your finger on what went wrong. Was Rocky Lombardi far off target, or were his wideouts running the wrong routes on a couple of those head-scratchers.

And we know that it all starts up front for this unit, and MSU was missing probably its best player in Devontae Dobbs, but the line did not look ready early on. They were beaten, often, and the blocking help around them wasn't sound as Rutgers went into the double-digits on the stat sheet for tackles for loss. It's safe to say that Mel Tucker does not want to see that again.

There were a few signs of hope. Jayden Reed looks like the real deal and immediately reminded you of another number 5 in Green that burst out in Mark Dantonio's first year, Devin Thomas. If Reed has anywhere near the success Thomas had in '07, this offense will get better. It will also get better if MSU features Jordon Simmons as its lead tailback.

Simmons looks like another Georgia born Spartan destined for big things at MSU and stands out clearly as the best athlete MSU has back there. With the new regime in town, we should expect that Mel Tucker will do a better job of identifying and feeding the best playmakers in his offense again; but when the offense had the chance to tie the game at 28, the Spartans somehow decided to take the ball out of Lombardi's hands (then 20 for 26) and run the ball on 3rd and 4th Down, shocking the bulk of the Spartan Nation that watched this team run the ball in recent years.

On a day filled with mistakes, those play calls sealed the deal for the Spartans' first loss of 2020. The offense did not have a good day, they made too many big mistakes and couldn't get things done when needed most, but their quarterback did get it going a bit and plant a few seeds of hope.

The offense cannot repeat that many critical mistakes if they're going to take a step forward in 2020, and the critical mistakes on the drive that could have tied the game looked too much like the stalled out Spartan Offense of the late 2010s and not enough like a new era.

DEFENSE

Any hope the Spartan D would not have to carry as much of the load early in 2020 went out the window so far and so fast that the defense immediately snapped back into the position they were put in the past few years. After a quick Rutgers start, the defense responded and started to get off the field. As it got deeper into the 3rd, you could sense that MSU had a shot to steal a game they nearly lost in the first 30-minutes, by in large because of the defense that kept them in it.

Yet, the defense was put in another tough spot after the incredible play calls on third and fourth Down that stopped the MSU momentum that was bursting after the huge third-quarter turnover. And giving up more than 30-points, regardless of the turnover festival from the offense, will never be up to the Spartan Dawg standard. Yet, there was more good than bad from this unit to open the year.

Rutgers ended up with just 106 yards rushing on the day, but the defense was stuck watching MSU struggle and implode a bit around them. At the same time, the defense looked a lot more like itself than some might have expected, and they might have looked quite good if they hadn't been put so far behind the eight-ball early on.

Next week will be an honest test for this unit. While Michigan is not likely to set any worlds on fire moving the ball, the Michigan game almost always reveals the truth about your defense. Can it stand up when needed against the biggest foe on the schedule? Hard to tell, given the strange circumstances of the Rutgers wobble.

They should not have to deal with the number of surprise calls to get back on the field after that many turnovers, but they will need to be better than they were against Rutgers to compete with Michigan for sixty full minutes.

SPECIAL TEAMS

We talked about Matt Coghlin in this space last week, and Coghlin played a key role in keeping MSU around before the half. After a time out whistle took away his first make, Coghlin needed to make the 45-yarder to cut the deficit to 11. He wasn't done. Coghlin had a few more practice kicks, taking advantage of the Rutgers penalty right before the half, to cut the lead back to 15. Matt Coghlin came to play and got himself back on the right track for a bounce-back 2020.

Mistakes that infected the Rutgers loss also got to this unit as Jalen Nailor fumbled a punt five minutes into the 4th when Rutgers was up 31-20. MSU needed the ball back and had to score relatively quickly on that drive, but they didn't secure the possession. Rutgers took that gift, chewed the more than half the remaining game-clock away, and went up 38-20 to ice the game for good. Special Teams didn't cost MSU the Rutgers game, but the Nailor fumble did quite a bit to confirm it.

INTANGIBLES 

The first half of the Rutgers game felt too much like the last two years for an eager Spartan Nation. It's one thing to get beat by another team; it's another to come out and throw up all over yourselves for nearly sixty-minutes to an overmatched opponent. That's what MSU did in the first 30-min Saturday, practically taking MSU out of a game they could have won in order to quickly right the ship after rather mediocre previous 26-games or so. That simply did not happen.

The best news for Spartan Football is that suddenly, it's Michigan week. No time to keep your head down to ponder the egg your team just dropped in the opener of the Mel Tucker era. Michigan week always brings an elevated focus and energy. That's the bare minimum MSU will need to have any chance to stay with Michigan into the final minutes next week.

The performance Saturday suggests that MSU has a long way to go, starting with focus and effort. The MSU offense made so many mistakes early on Saturday that it quickly spilled over into the rest of the team. Those mistakes looked more mental than physical. They will be amplified on national television next Saturday at Michigan if there isn't a serious correction and reality check from the entire Spartan roster this week.

Where was the juice Saturday afternoon? Didn't see much of it on the sideline, where it was needed most, before the third-quarter spurt. MSU knew they wouldn't have any fan support but didn't seem to do enough early to make up for it. Many were expecting a lot more energy out of the gate, and maybe that went out the door when the turnovers started dropping all over, but the Spartans still had a shot at playing a fine second half and stealing an opening W. The juice should not be in short supply for Michigan week, and this Spartan team has a good bit to prove after losing the opener at home to Rutgers.

EXTRA POINTS

  • Fox wants the Big Noon Saturday to rule their College Football package. That's fine, but Michigan and Michigan State missed a golden opportunity to play this game at night for the first time. No tailgates, few if any fans and a decent setting in Ann Arbor at night all went by the wayside thanks to Fox. It was apparently their choice to make, but it might also go down as the last real shot to ever try playing the most bitter sibling rivalry in this nation under the lights.
  • After the fumble, down 28-20, the Spartans had the momentum over Rutgers. The energy they lacked earlier in the game had suddenly appeared. Rocky Lombardi was 20 for 26 at the time, having just thrown a 30-yard Touchdown to Jalen Nailor, and MSU faced a 3rd and short. They ran it for a yard. Then, they went for it rather than cutting the lead to five and ran the ball again? They not only took the ball out of a simmering quarterback's hand, they decided to run it with a team that's ranked near 100th in Total Rushing the last handful of years. That was a shocker in real-time and remains a shocker this many hours later. Look, offensive play calling will always be the most criticized aspect of just about any football coaching staff, but those two play calls were a stark and foul blast from the past. They were about 180 degrees from what you would've expected the 2020 Spartan Offense would have gone with at that time. The Spartans had a shot to absolutely steal that game, right there, and they decided to take the ball out of their primed quarterback's hands to run the ball on 3rd and 4th Down. That's ultimately the sour legacy the 2020 turnover-filled season opener will have.

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