East Lansing – There were no fans at Spartan Stadium on Saturday, and that might have been a good thing.
If 70,000-plus had packed the stands for Mel Tucker’s debut as Michigan State’s head coach, odds are they would have been hurling their share of boos toward the field, a chorus that likely would have begun early and lasted the entire afternoon.
As it was, the few hundred fan cutouts in the stands were probably booing in their own way, only because they couldn’t get up and leave.
That sums up a fairly miserable performance overall for Michigan State, which turned the ball over seven times as Rutgers, a team that entered Saturday with a 21-game Big Ten losing streak, took advantage of all the Spartans’ miscues and came away with a 38-27 victory.
“I know our fans expect more from this football team than what we showed today,” Tucker said. “and we expect more out of ourselves. There’s a higher standard. So now we’ve got work to do.”
That was clear after the Spartans lost five fumbles and threw two interceptions, the seven total giveaways the most since a 43-36 win over Minnesota in 1981.
The constant inability to hang on to the ball overshadowed some decent offensive numbers.
Sophomore transfer Jayden Reed had 11 catches for 128 yards and two touchdowns, but he fumbled twice, both ending promising drives for the Spartans. And quarterback Rocky Lombardi, who was the only one to take a snap under center, was 31-for-44 for 319 yards and three touchdowns, but he threw two interceptions and fumbled inside the MSU 5 in the first half.
“Those were disappointing,” Tucker said. “Turnover margin is the largest determining factor in winning and losing games, college and pro. We talk about it all the time – the ball, the ball, the ball – taking care of the football and taking the ball away on defense.
“You turn the ball over seven times, it’s gonna be tough to beat anyone, and you’re not going to be able to beat good teams.”
Rutgers (1-0) scored 21 points off the turnovers as Greg Schiano won in his return as Rutgers’ head coach, the team he led from 2001-11. Isaih Pacheco ran for two touchdowns while quarterback Noah Vedral threw for one and ran for another for the Scarlet Knights.
“I was so happy for our players,” Schiano said. “It wasn’t just the months since coronavirus started, these kids that have been in the program have had some tough stretches. To see the joy on their faces was awesome, but how they did it was even better.
“You know we had some downturns in the game and that’s what I talked to them about, is that I don’t want to see the ‘woe is me,’ I want to see tough guys that just keep going. Keep chopping as we say. That was the most impressive to me.”
It was clear early on that Rutgers would be the aggressor as the Scarlet Knights took the opening kickoff and marched 75 yards on 10 plays, a 25-yard third-down pass from Vedral to Max Melton the key to the drive. The Scarlet Knights capped things off with a 12-yard run by Pacheco to take a 7-0 lead.
The Spartans followed by starting a long run of shooting themselves in the foot. Lombardi connected with Reed on a 19-yard pass on the first play from scrimmage, but Reed fumbled the ball and the Scarlet Knights got the ball right back.
The Michigan State defense answered with a three-and-out, but on the next drive, Lombardi was sacked and fumbled the ball. It was recovered by Rutgers’ Tyreek Maddox-Williams and four plays later Johnny Langan scored on a 1-yard run to give the Scarlet Knights a 14-0 lead less than halfway through the first quarter.
“I think they came out and looked like they wanted it more than us,” Michigan State safety Xavier Henderson said. “That’s the biggest thing I was upset about, even on defense. The first possession they went and drove the field on this. That’s the biggest thing I was upset about.”
Late in the quarter, Michigan State was able to get the ball moving behind the running for freshman Jordan Simmons. Facing a fourth-and-1 at midfield, Lombardi hit Reed, who made a quick move then went 50 yards for the touchdown to pull the Spartans within 14-7 with 23 seconds left in the first quarter.
Michigan State’s next drive ended when Lombardi was intercepted by Rutgers’ Tre Avery. Two plays later, Vedral scored on a 24-yard run to extend the lead to 21-7.
“It was very vertical route and we have the choice to come back or go, and he chose go and I chose come back,” Lombardi said of the throw intended for Jalen Nailor. “It didn’t work out my favorite but just one of those things where we’ve got to be on the same page.”
The Spartans were putting together another solid drive in response, but after gaining 10 yards on a catch, Reed fumbled again, this time in Rutgers territory. The defense answered with a Shakur Brown interception, but his return for a touchdown was called back for an illegal block. Michigan State ended up settling for a 45-yard field goal from Matt Coghlin to pull within 21-10 with 3:13 left in the half.
Rutgers wasn’t done, though, returning the kickoff to nearly midfield, setting up a six-play drive that ended with a 3-yard touchdown run for Pacheco. The Spartans managed a 48-yard field goal from Coghlin to close the half down, 28-13.
“We shot ourselves in the foot a lot today, like a lot,” linebacker Antjuan Simmons said. “We really have to clean up our play, play smarter, play harder, play with an edge, bring energy. We started off flat. That’s why I think things got out of control on his quick, but we kept fighting. I mean we’re able to stay in the fight.”
Michigan State overcame its fifth turnover – a fumble by Simmons on the first drive of the second half – by creating one of their own on punt coverage. Linebacker Chase Kline hit Rutgers return man Aron Cruickshank, jarring the ball loose and it was recovered by Simmons. On the next play, Lombardi hit Nailor with a 30-yard touchdown pass to bring MSU within 28-20 with 6:30 left in the third quarter.
The Spartans forced another turnover on the next drive but failed to capitalize, getting stuffed on fourth down from inside Rutgers territory. The Scarlet Knights answered with a 44-yard field goal from Guy Fava with 12:20 to play to extend their lead to 31-20.
Rutgers put the game away with a 14-yard touchdown pass from Vedral to Shameen Jones with 4:38 left in the fourth quarter, pushing its lead to 38-20. The Spartans added a 4-yard touchdown pass from Lombardi to Reed with 1:53 to play to close out the scoring.
Things don’t get any easier next week as the Spartans travel to take on Michigan.
“We’ll continue to move forward,” Tucker said. “This is just the beginning. This is not the end, and this is a process. I know that, and our staff knows that. We know what we have to do to continue to take steps to play the type of football that we are expected to play.”