Michigan State has followed a downward trajectory over the course of 2019. The Spartans entered October as a possible contender for the Big Ten championship with a 2-0 record in conference games. Halfway through November, they are just hoping to avoid a losing season. Five straight losses, four of those by 21 points or more, have sent then into a nosedive.
Rutgers has struggled even more. The Scarlet Knights have only two victories this season after only one in 2018. They have lost 19 straight games against Big Ten opponents.
Michigan State leads the all-time series, 7-3. For games played in New Jersey, the Spartans hold an advantage of 3-1. Rutgers has lost all five matchups with Michigan State when both teams have been members of the Big Ten.
Michigan State at Rutgers
Kickoff: Saturday, Nov. 23 at 12 p.m. ET
Spread: Spartans -20.5
When Michigan State Has the Ball
Senior quarterback Brian Lewerke figured to serve as a catalyst in the effort to upgrade Michigan State's plodding and ineffective offense from last year. He has shown some improvement over his 54.3 completion percentage, his 2,040 passing yards, eight touchdowns through the air and 11 interceptions in 11 games in 2018. This year, he ranks number 51 in the FBS in terms of total passing yards (2,178). However, his completion percentage of 55.8 is 90th. He has thrown only 13 touchdown passes, tied for 62nd. He has tossed nine interceptions so far. He has improved, but not enough to boost the offense.
The Spartans' struggles to run the ball are contributing to the offense's lack of productivity as well. After some early successes against non-conference foes, Michigan State's ground attack has sputtered for the most part. The Spartans have exceeded 100 rushing yards in only three of their seven Big Ten contests. MSU has scored just six touchdowns on the ground in those seven games. Against only two of those intra-conference opponents have their per-carry average exceeded three yards.
Rutgers' defense has struggled to slow down opponents even a little. The Knights' defense has given up at least 21 points in every game, including 30 or more in eight games. They have allowed an average of 2.1 passing touchdowns and 2.6 rushing touchdowns per game. Every opponent has rushed for more than 100 yards against Rutgers. Big Ten teams have rushed for 202.6 yards and thrown for 272.6 on average against Rutgers.
When Rutgers Has the Ball
The Scarlet Knights have not even benefited from stability at the quarterback position. None of Rutgers' three quarterbacks ranks in the top 100 in terms of passing yards or touchdowns. Eighty-seven quarterbacks have thrown for more yards through the air than the combination of all four of Rutgers players who have attempted a pass this season. Ninety-two quarterbacks have completed more touchdown passes so far than Rutgers' quartet of passers cumulatively.
In the most important role for a defense — preventing opponents from scoring — the Spartans have failed miserably. They have surrendered 20 passing touchdowns and 10 rushing touchdowns. Of those 30 touchdowns, 26 have come from Big Ten opponents. Six of the Spartans' seven opponents from the Big Ten have scored four or more offensive touchdowns while averaging 35.3 points against MSU. Michigan State's defense looks nothing like the formidable squad from 2018 that was projected to be dominant again.
What is Michigan State's motivation heading into this game? The Spartans must win it in order to have a chance to become bowl eligible. A victory would allow them to go into the regular-season finale at home next week with finishing .500 on the line. By closing out the schedule with two wins, those results could let them finish with a winning record after a victory in their bowl game. They could also possibly give their head coach, Mark Dantonio, a reprieve from forced retirement after this season.
What is Rutgers' motivation? Players might summon up some pride to defeat someone in the Big Ten for the first time since early November 2017. They may view their performances as auditions — either for the new head coach who will take over the program for next season or for other programs where they may wish to transfer.
These teams have much in common, with those shared traits being negative. Uncertainty about who will lead their football programs cloud their focus. Michigan and Ohio State dominated both. Neither has accomplished much of anything this year beyond winning out-of-conference games against overmatched opponents. The key difference is that Michigan State can still avoid the indignity of a losing season.
Prediction: Michigan State 27, Rutgers 10
— Written by John La Fleur, a contributor to AthlonSports.com, who focuses on the New Orleans Saints and Michigan State Spartans. He also frequently comments on other teams in the NFL and in NCAA football. Follow him on Twitter @FBConnoisseur and read his viewpoints at gridironconnoisseur.wordpress.com and at gridiron-connoisseur.blogspot.com.