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Rutgers Scarlet Knights vs. Michigan State Spartans Prediction and Preview

Rutgers Scarlet Knights vs. Michigan State Spartans Prediction and Preview

Rutgers Scarlet Knights vs. Michigan State Spartans Prediction and Preview

Two teams battling for pride will meet in Spartan Stadium this week as the Michigan State Spartans host the Rutgers Scarlet Knights.

Somewhere mid-season, it all fell apart on the Spartans. Ranked 20th in the nation in early October, the Spartans hoped to be Big Ten contenders, only to lose to the conference’s two division leaders in the Northwestern Wildcats and the Michigan Wolverines. Now, they’re hoping to finish the regular season one cut about .500 by beating the visiting Scarlet Knights on Saturday.

The Spartans own a middling 6-5 record and sit mid-pack at 4-4 in the Big Ten. They come in having lost their last two games, scoring just six points in each of them — a 9-6 loss against the visiting Nebraska Cornhuskers last week, and a 26-6 road loss against the then-No. 10 Ohio State Buckeyes.

All told, it’s been another mediocre season for Michigan State. On the other side, it’s been disaster for Rutgers, which is an awful 1-10 heading into its final game of the 2018 season. A loss Saturday, giving them a winless conference record (0-9), would mark the Scarlet Knights’ worst record since 2002. Ouch!

Rutgers at Michigan State

Kickoff: Saturday, Nov. 24 at 4 p.m. ET

Spread: Michigan -27

Three Things to Watch

1. Can Rutgers win again?

It’s been another ugly year for Rutgers, having lost every game since the opener, a 35-7 home victory over the Texas State Bobcats. Since then, the Scarlet Knights have been hard-pressed to stay in games, although they did put a fight right to the end in a 20-7 home loss to the No. 14 Penn State Nittany Lions in Week 12.

Some sort of carry-over from that contest could go a long way in ending the season on a high note — even a win. “Whether it's by 50 or it's by five, every loss hurts,” Rutgers head coach Chris Ash said in his weekly press conference Monday. “I am proud of the way that our players continue to work and fight and they continue to improve. That's where we're at. That's the circumstances that we are in.

“I am also pleased about the continued improvement that I see out of our football team that we can build on, and that's really what we're trying to do.”

2. Defense rules

It won't get any easier for Rutgers to dig up a win against a stalwart Michigan State defense that is allowing averages of just 18.7 points (17th in the nation) and 320.1 yards (19th) per game.

Over the last four games, the MSU defense been at its best against offensively minded programs. It held the prolific Purdue Boilermakers to just 16 points and 339 total yards and followed with even better numbers — three and 100 — in a second straight win, this one over the Maryland Terrapins Then came tough losses to Ohio State, when it allowed 26 points and 347 yards, and to Nebraska, when it surrendered only nine points and 248 yards.

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Ash, who will reportedly return in 2019 for the second season of a five-year extension he signed last offseason, has become more heavily involved with Rutgers' defense over the last month, and the unit has responded with solid outings. On the year, it is middle-of-the-pack in allowing 403 yards per game, but its 33 points allowed per game ranks in the bottom third among the FBS teams.

Look for the Knights to have one final sharp showing against Michigan State, especially with six defensive starters set to play the final game of their college careers.

3. Offensive woes

Many feel that a lackluster offense is the only reason why the Spartans aren’t in the mix for a Big Ten championship. They’re not wrong. Only 16 teams in the FBS have piled up fewer yards than Michigan State’s 346 per game. Even worse is the 20.3 points scored per outing, which places the Spartans in a tie for 120th.

Whether it’s junior Brian Lewerke or redshirt freshman Rocky Lombardi at the quarterback position for Michigan State, the points have been hard to come by. The health of Lewerke's shoulder has been an issue for the last half of the campaign, making consistency difficult to find for Sparty’s offense.

“I think we have to wait to see how (Lewerke) is feeling and then make some decisions at that point (for Saturday),” said Spartans head coach Mark Dantonio on the state of his starting quarterback. “But I think he’s getting better. He could have played (last Saturday). It has to do with... how he feels mechanically, not so much (about) pain.”

Lewerke, with a pedestrian 1,868 passing yards on the year, missed the last game — his second in four tilts — while Lombardi was an ugly 15-of-41 for 146 yards in the loss to Nebraska. It’s a mess at the most important position.

It’s no better at Rutgers, where Art Sitkowski and Gio Rescigno rotate at quarterback for the listless Knights. In fact, it’s worse, with the offense averaging just 270.7 yards per game — third worst in the FBS ranks — and a paltry 13.8 points per contest, ranking them ahead of only the UTSA Roadrunners in all of FBS.

Freshman Sitkowski has tossed a nation-high 18 interceptions against just four TDs, while Rescigno has forever been a backup with the Knights despite being a senior, appearing in six games this season.

“We've got to play cleaner football,” Ash said. “We've got to take care of the football. We've got to try to score some points. We're focused on those things. If we do those things, then wins will come, whether it be this Saturday or next year. Those are the things we have to focus on.”

Final Analysis

As inconsistent as Michigan State has been, it’s difficult to imagine the home side losing to an essentially 0-fer squad. Michigan State, after all, is by far the better of the two teams, and most of its losses have come to the high-and-mighty of the Big Ten. Rutgers, meanwhile, has dropped games at every turn, no matter the strength of opponent.

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With little to play for but pride on Senior Day, however, don’t expect much intensity out of the Spartans. And the Scarlet Knights have improved — at least defensively — over the last month. So unless Sparty finds its rhythm offensively, which has been a season-long challenge, this one should be a low-scoring affair controlled mostly by the home team.

Prediction: Michigan State 23, Rutgers 13

— Written by Todd Saelhof, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network and a sports editor/writer for Postmedia in Canada. Follow him on @ToddSaelhofPM at #CollegeFootballFrenzy.