The Michigan State Spartans will put their undefeated season to the test when they travel to face the resurgent Rutgers Scarlet Knights on Saturday afternoon.
Last Saturday, Rutgers entered its home game with a 3-1 record and full of optimism about its ability to compete with Ohio State. That disappeared by halftime as the Scarlet Knights found themselves in a 45-6 chasm.
Meanwhile, Michigan State (5-0, 2-0 Big Ten), in its last non-conference game, jumped out to a 42-16 lead over WKU going into halftime. The Hilltoppers scored two touchdowns in the fourth quarter to trim the lead to 14, but the Spartans were never truly threatened in a game that finished 48-31.
Michigan State leads the all-time series, 8-4, including a 4-1 lead for games played in New Jersey. Last season, Rutgers beat Michigan State for the first time in the teams' seven meetings as members of the Big Ten.
No. 11 Michigan State at Rutgers
Kickoff: Saturday, Oct. 9 at 12 p.m. ET
TV: Big Ten Network
Spread: Michigan State -5
When Rutgers Has the Ball
The Scarlet Knights must come out ahead in the turnover ratio. In victories over Temple and Syracuse, they won the turnover battle four to zero and three to zero, respectively. In their two defeats, they turned over the ball once at Michigan and three times versus Ohio State without any takeaways in either game. Rutgers' lead in the turnover margin (+4), helped the Knights engineer the 38-27 upset in East Lansing last October.
Five different members of Rutgers' offense have attempted a pass so far this season. However, no quarterback controversy exists, as Noah Vedral has served as the undisputed starter. In four games against FBS opponents, he has averaged 147.8 passing yards per game with one touchdown pass in each contest.
The Scarlet Knights have spread around the ball to multiple players. Bo Melton leads the team in receptions (24), receiving yards (253), and touchdown catches (two) despite missing a game. Aron Cruickshank ranks second with 17 receptions and 206 receiving yards. Nine other players have caught at least three passes this season.
Rutgers should have a chance to put up big numbers, since FBS opponents have exploited Michigan State's defense. All four of them accumulated at least 400 total yards from scrimmage, including more than 250 passing yards, while the Spartans have surrendered eight touchdown passes thus far.
When Michigan State Has the Ball
Jayden Reed continues to compile yards and touchdowns on both offense and special teams. He has 20 receptions for 463 yards and five touchdowns, having caught at least three passes in each game. He also has carried the ball five times for 38 yards and a score. He has averaged 30.7 yards on his six kickoff returns and has returned five punts for 198 yards and two touchdowns.
Against WKU, Kenneth Walker III resumed his impressive offensive production: 24 carries for 126 yards and three touchdowns. This rebound occurred after struggling against Nebraska, managing just 61 yards on 19 attempts. He still leads the nation with 680 yards on 100 carries and is tied for sixth with eight rushing touchdowns. He's also caught a touchdown pass in limited work (3 rec., 17 yds.) as a receiver.
Will Rutgers prevent Reed from having opportunities to make more spectacular gains? The Scarlet Knights have permitted two opponents to accumulate more than 100 receiving yards: Syracuse's Taj Harris (8 rec., 122 yds.) and Ohio State's Chris Olave (5, 119 with 2 TDs). Rutgers also has allowed only one punt return to exceed five yards, a 29-yard return by Michigan's A.J. Henning.
Another big question is can Rutgers curtail the contributions by Walker on the ground? The Knights have held three opponents to 3.1 yards or fewer per rushing attempt. And only player thus far has posted more than 70 rushing yards (Delaware running back Dejoun Lee had 127 on 15 carries back on Sept. 18).
Rutgers started head coach Greg Schiano's first full season back in Piscataway in impressive fashion, sweeping its three non-conference games. The Scarlet Knights then hung close with Michigan before losing by a touchdown as they opened their Big Ten slate. But last week was a return to reality courtesy of a 39-point beatdown by Ohio State.
The Spartans keep rising in the national polls, currently sitting at No. 11 in both the Associated Press and AFCA Coaches polls. In case they are looking past Rutgers, head coach Mel Tucker need only remind them of how last season opened. The Spartans endured a turnover-plagued, face-planting, 11-point home loss to the Scarlet Knights. Don't expect a repeat on Saturday.
Prediction: Michigan State 30, Rutgers 17
Podcast: Week 6 Preview and Predictions + Picks Against the Spread
— 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.