PISCATAWAY – When Rutgers visited East Lansing a year ago, the Scarlet Knights were up against a team that was similar in many ways.
Both teams were on new regimes – Greg Schiano was back with Rutgers and Mel Tucker had taken over the Spartans after Mark Dantonio’s sudden retirement last February.
Both teams had a lot of questions at the start of their respective rebuilds.
Both teams have come a long way.
Michigan State is undefeated and nationally ranked and has one of the Big Ten’s best offenses, while Rutgers has made progress under Schiano and his coaching staff.
The Scarlet Knights will look to give the 11th-ranked Spartans their first loss of the season while breaking their own two-game slippage on Saturday at SHI Stadium (noon, Big Ten Network), their third straight game against a ranked opponent.
Rutgers beat Michigan State 38-27 last October to break the program’s 21-game losing streak. It was an encouraging way for Rutgers to start Schiano’s second stint at Piscataway, and it was the first of three Big Ten wins in 2020 for the Scarlet Knights.
But it will be a very different MSU team – Tucker revamped the roster after last year’s 2-5 campaign.
Here’s a preview of the game:
Three Michigan players to watch
Kenneth Walker III, RB
Walker transferred from Wake Forest and joined the state of Michigan as part of the Spartans roster overhaul and had an immediate impact. He’s fueled MSU’s offense and leads the Big Ten with 680 rushing yards (136 per game) in 100 carries with eight touchdowns. Walker ran for 264 yards against Northwestern, 172 against Miami and 126 against Western Kentucky.
Jayden Reed, WR
Reed has had a strong season both on offense and on special teams. He has 20 catches for a 463-yard team with five touchdowns. The 6-foot, 185-pound Illinois native has at least one touchdown in four of Michigan State’s five games this season. Reed is also a big threat to special teams. He returned a 62-yard punt for a touchdown in the Spartans’ win over Nebraska, then returned 88 extra yards for a touchdown against Western Kentucky. Reed leads the Big Ten with 176.6 all-purpose yards per game.
Jacub Panasiuk, DE
The recent production of Panasiuk has been a big reason Michigan State is third in the Big Ten with 18 sacks. The six-foot-four, 255-pound fifth-year defensive end has 14 tackles (seven for losses) and four sacks – two in each of the Spartans’ last two games. If Rutgers’ offensive line struggles to contain him, it could be a long day for Noah Vedral and the Scarlet Knights.
Three questions Rutgers faces
1. Will Bo Melton and Raiqwon O’Neal play?
Both players suffered injuries in last week’s loss to Ohio State. Greg Schiano said Monday they were receiving treatment and the team should wait and see if they could be available against Michigan State. Nothing has changed since. Schiano said after training on Wednesday there had been no update on their status. Losing Melton, who apparently suffered a shoulder injury, would be tough on the offense. The Mays Landing native is the Scarlet Knights’ top receiver with 24 catches for 253 yards and two touchdowns. O’Neal has started three games in left tackle this season and started eight games in 2020.
2. Can Rutgers start forcing turnovers again?
The Scarlet Knights’ ability to force turnovers earlier this season – they had eight against Temple and Syracuse – played a big role in their first two wins. But Rutgers has now played three straight games without a take-out. Schiano said earlier this week that ending this drought would be critical against the state of Michigan. Easier said than done, the Spartans have made just three turnovers this season, two fumbles and one interception. Rutgers forced seven turnovers in their win over Michigan State last season, but they’re a better, more disciplined Spartans team.
3. Can Rutgers’ defense limit another powerful attack?
The Ohio State offense was filled with weapons, from quarterback CJ Stroud to running back TreVeyon Henderson to wide receivers Chris Olave and Garrett Wilson. The State of Michigan, meanwhile, is not lacking in this area either. The Spartans sit third in the Big Ten behind Ohio State and Michigan with 37.8 points per game. Walker and Reed have both been stellar. Jalen Nailor was also strong with 18 catches for 269 yards and three touchdowns, while Tre Mosley had 16 catches for 250 yards. MSU offense clicked. Rutgers will have to find a way to slow him down. That means the Scarlet Knights need to get back to playing the kind of aggressive, solid defense they had before the loss to Ohio State. It also means playing the type of defense against the Michigan run to limit Walker.
PREDICTIONS:Can Scarlet Knights break a two-game losing streak?
Three numbers to know
This is the number of passing yards Michigan State gives up, which ranks last in the Big Ten.
That’s the number of penalties Rutgers averages per game, a national record.
That’s the number of transfers Mel Tucker made to help revitalize the program after it went from 2 to 5 in the pandemic-shortened 2020 season.
Player spotlight: Ifeanyi Maijeh defensive tackle transfer is making an impact
After spending four years at Temple, defensive tackle Ifeanyi Maijeh transferred to Rutgers and immediately provided veteran depth to the Scarlet Knights’ defensive line.
The 6-foot-2, 280-pound Maijeh continued to progress with the fit.
In five games, the Far Rockaway, NY native has eight tackles (three for loss) with 1½ sacks and a fumble recovery.
“I feel like I’m well settled, doing what I can,” Maijeh said after Rutgers practice on Tuesday. “It was no longer waiting for my turn. I’m already ready, I just waited my turn to step onto the pitch and shake things up.
Maijeh was assaulted at the start of training camp, which delayed him a bit. There was a starting spot on the defensive line up for grabs following Michael Dwumfour’s departure to the NFL following the 2020 season.
That spot ultimately went to Mayan Ahanotu, who transferred to Rutgers from Minnesota before last season.
But when he had opportunities, Maijeh managed to make an impact. He also had a familiar face to help him settle in – linebacker Olakunle Fatukasi is Maijeh’s cousin.
Maijeh also got used to a big difference from his days in Temple.
“Definitely more demanding,” Maijeh said. “The coach demands a lot more of us. He expects us to do a lot more, to play. The workload is a lot more intense. The Big Ten is just a different level from AAC. “