A pair of Big Ten teams breaking in "new" head coaches will meet up on Saturday when the Rutgers Scarlet Knights face off against the Michigan State Spartans in East Lansing. Even if each program is familiar with their head men, this game should shed light on how their rebuilds are going.
Rutgers pulled the plug on Chris Ash's tenure only four games into the 2019 season. The Scarlet Knights had stumbled to a 1-3 start, which left Ash with an 8-32 record at Rutgers. He had only three wins against Big Ten opponents. Nunzio Campanile became interim head coach, but he could not salvage the season. He only managing one victory in the eight remaining contests.
As a result of the program's decline, Rutgers is turning to a familiar face: Greg Schiano is back in Piscataway for a second stint. He compiled a 68-67 record at Rutgers from 2001 through 2011 and led the Scarlet Knights to five victories in six bowl games. They appeared in the Associated Press' Top 25 polls in 2006, 2007, and 2009. Despite the rough start of his tenure, the Scarlet Knights finished with winning records in six of his final seven seasons there. He left for a short-lived head coaching job with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers but is back where he belongs coaching college football.
The Spartans' turnover was far more surprising; Mark Dantonio abruptly retired in February after completing his second consecutive 7-6 seasons to finish with a 114-57 record in East Lansing. Michigan State had to sift through the remaining qualified and interested candidates. The Power Five programs needing a head coach had already picked their replacements from the coaching carousel at that point. Less than two weeks later, MSU lured Mel Tucker back from Colorado.
Tucker has limited head coaching experience since he began his coaching career at Michigan State in 1997 as a graduate assistant. His Buffaloes finished 5-7 in his sole season as a collegiate head coach. His only other head coaching experience occurred in 2011. The Jacksonville Jaguars promoted him from defensive coordinator to interim head coach after firing Jack Del Rio. Tucker led the Jaguars to a 2-3 record.
Michigan State leads the all-time series, 8-3. For games played in East Lansing, the Spartans hold an advantage of 4-2. MSU has won all six meetings since Rutgers joined the Big Ten.
Rutgers at Michigan State
Kickoff: Saturday, Oct. 24 at 12 p.m. ET
TV: Big Ten Network
Spread: Michigan State -13
When Rutgers Has the Ball
Of the three quarterbacks who took snaps in games for Rutgers last season, two have returned. Johnny Langan appeared in 10 contests, completing 80-of-159 passes for 840 yards, four touchdowns, and nine interceptions. Artur Sitkowski only played in the Scarlet Knights' three September matchups, connecting on 44-of-68 passing attempts for a touchdown and two interceptions. Noah Vedral joined the competition after transferring from Nebraska, where he completed 34-of-52 passes for 418 yards with no touchdowns or interceptions.
Rutgers does return a significant amount of its rushing production from 2019. Isaih Pacheco led the team in rushing attempts (169), yards (729), and touchdowns (seven). Langan finished second in those three categories with 134 carries for 391 yards and three touchdowns. Aaron Young contributed 153 yards on 43 attempts.
Of the six Scarlet Knights who caught a double-digit number of passes, four have returned this season. Bo Melton led the squad with 30 receptions for 427 yards and was tied for the most touchdowns with two. Isaiah Washington finished third on the team with 18 catches for 272 yards and a touchdown. Young caught 15 passes for 113 yards for fourth place. Pacheco finished sixth on the team with 13 receptions for 83 yards.
The Spartans' defense is vastly depleted from last season. Linebacker Antjuan Simmons and strong safety Xavier Henderson are the only defenders remaining who finished among the team's top-seven tacklers last year. Five of the top six in terms of tackles for a loss are gone. In 2019, eight players combined for 12 interceptions, but only three have returned. Henderson picked off two passes while cornerback Shakur Brown and defensive end Drew Beesley had one each. Additionally, linebackers Luke Fulton and Charles Willekes have been suspended indefinitely after being charged with assault in August.
When Michigan State Has the Ball
Michigan State has a few options at quarterback. The versatile junior Rocky Lombardi completed 75-of-175 pass attempts for three touchdowns and five touchdowns during the two previous seasons. Theo Day threw just three passes and completed two of those as a freshman. Payton Thorne redshirted last season without recording an offensive statistic.
The Spartans return their top two running backs from 2019. Elijah Collins rushed the ball 222 times for 988 yards and five touchdowns for the team lead in all three categories. Anthony Williams Jr. carried the ball 38 times for 118 yards and a touchdown.
Michigan State lost a huge portion of its contributors to the passing attack. In addition to the departure of quarterback Brian Lewerke, the team also lost its top-three finishers in receptions, receiving yards, and touchdown receptions are gone. Sophomore Tre Mosley caught 21 passes for 216 yards and a touchdown. Tight end Matt Dotson had 16 receptions for 151 and a touchdown.
Rutgers will field much of its contributors from last season. Five of its six top tacklers have returned. Seven of the top eight leaders in tackles for a loss are back. The Knights only picked off six passes in 2019, but three defenders accounting for four of those remain.
Both teams struggled to move the ball and score last season, and they may have trouble changing that early in the season. The new coaching staffs on both sidelines had no spring camps to facilitate the implementation of new systems. Viewers should expect a sloppy game.
Prediction: Michigan State 16, Rutgers 13
Podcast: Week 8 Preview and Predictions
— 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.
(Antjuan Simmons photo by Matthew Mitchell/Michigan State Athletics)