It's game week for Michigan State football: Here's what we're watching
Free Press sports writer Chris Solari looks ahead to Saturday's season opener for Michigan State football against Rutgers:
Matchup: Rutgers (2-10, 0-9 Big Ten in 2019) at Michigan State (7-6, 4-5 in 2019).
Kickoff: Noon Saturday; Spartan Stadium, East Lansing.
TV/radio: Big Ten Network, WJR-AM (760).
Line: Spartans by 15.
Know the foe
Times have been hard for the Scarlet Knights since Greg Schiano last coached them in 2011. They are 36-63 in the eight seasons since then. Rutgers fired Chris Ash four games into his fourth season a year ago and the program has lost 21 straight Big Ten games. Re-enter Schiano, who was 68-67 in 11 seasons with the Scarlet Knights from 2001-11 and produced winning teams in six of his last seven seasons in Piscataway. He returns after spending two years as head coach of Tampa Bay in the NFL and three seasons as defensive coordinator at Ohio State. Schiano has his work cut out for him, as Rutgers got shut out five times last season and ranked 129th out of the 130 Football Bowl Subdivision schools in averaging 13.3 points on offense and 123rd by giving up 36.7 points a game on defense. The Scarlet Knights also ranked 129th in total offense (273.1 yards per game) and first downs, while landing in the bottom 10 of the FBS in passing offense and efficiency, turnover margin, red-zone offense and punt returns. Who plays QB remains to be seem, with the battle continuing between Nebraska transfer Noah Vedral and Artur Sitkowski, who opted to sit out after Ash was fired last season. Schiano brought in a number of transfers, including former Ohio State safety Brendon White, the Rose Bowl defensive MVP two years ago.
3 things to watch
Tucker Time: Never be the guy following the legend, the old saying goes, but new coach Mel Tucker takes over for one in Mark Dantonio, who retired after becoming MSU’s winningest coach last season. Dantonio’s 13-year tenure put the Spartans back in the national title hunt from 2010-15 and included three Big Ten titles and a College Football Playoff berth. Enter Tucker, another defensive-minded leader who has just one season as a college head coach last year at Colorado. The challenges have been massive — from his February hiring late in the offseason calendar to losing spring practice to the pandemic to a late-summer COVID-19 shutdown — but Tucker finally gets to return to Spartan Stadium for a real game for the first time since he was a Nick Saban graduate assistant at MSU in 1997-98.
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Under wraps: At least there is game tape of what a Schiano-led Rutgers team might look like. Tucker talked about giving players a clean slate when he was hired, and he has the game-planning benefit of zero public game footage — not even a spring game or much practice footage — of how he might use his personnel. That has allowed Tucker and his staff to keep under wraps entering game week who will be running the offense at QB, who will quarterback the defense at middle LB, what the starting OL might look like after another injury-filled year and what schemes new offensive coordinator Jay Johnson and his defensive counterpart Scottie Hazelton have cooked up with limited time for install.
New QB1: Saturday will be the first time since hosting Purdue in 1996 that the Spartans will open with a Big Ten opponent. Their offense that season, with Todd Schultz at quarterback, produced one of the program’s most prolific outputs in nearly two decades. Much like Saban’s second season at MSU, Tucker will open against Rutgers with a new quarterback. Who it will be remains a closely guarded secret, but it could likely come down to fourth-year junior Rocky Lombardi and redshirt freshman Payton Thorne. Lombardi has the edge in experience, with three starts in 2018 that included a strong starting debut against the Boilermakers. However, Lombardi has been up and down in his other 15 appearances. Thorne has yet to take a snap in a college game, but multiple people inside Dantonio’s program raved about him a year ago, one likening Thorne to a young Drew Brees with his ability to create and push the ball downfield.
Contact Chris Solari: email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @chrissolari. Read more on the Michigan State Spartans and sign up for our Spartans newsletter.