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  • Writer's pictureScott Martin

Rutgers Breakdown - Where do we go from here?

Well… yikes. Every Spartan fan’s worst fears were realized last Saturday. A loss to Rutgers at home week 1 vs the only team in the Big Ten facing a similar coaching debut is a crushing blow to any sense of optimism around the program. But if you sift through the steaming pile of excrement we watched last weekend, there are a few gold nuggets to be found. Let’s get into it…

Why Spartan Nation should feel good:

A lot has been made of Julian Barnett since he arrived at Michigan State last fall. As a highly touted, athletic recruit (#57 Overall, #8 CB, #3 MI – 247), he was, and remains, a player that many Green and White fans are anxious to see find a home on the field. After a 2019 season which saw him pressed into action as a receiver, the 2020 season was ticketed as his breakout return to his natural position at corner. So it was a surprise to many when Barnett not only didn’t start at CB in game 1 against Rutgers, but didn’t scratch the rotation throughout the game. What made it exceptionally shocking was that he wasn’t featured even in a DB heavy 4-2-5 defense that played three CBs almost every defensive snap.

So what gives? I would argue that, while it’s frustrating not seeing one of the Spartans’ top athletes playing meaningful snaps yet, this is a positive for MSU. In a defense riddled with depth issues, the ability to take the slow route to Barnett’s development means Head Coach Mel Tucker and his staff (notably CB coach and “No Fly Zone” architect Harlon Barnett) feel that they have three game-ready options in Kalon Gervin, Shakur Brown and Chris Jackson.

How could they be game ready if we gave up 38 points to Rutgers, you say? Well, the numbers tell a bit of a different story. Rutgers Wide Receivers only hauled in 11 catches on 19 targets (57.9%) for 125 yards (6.6 yards per attempt) and a lone touchdown. Given how ugly the Spartans looked throughout that game, that’s not a bad line to concede as a unit. There were sore spots (Shakur Brown’s PI in the end zone, a long third down conversion where Gervin lost his man in a scramble drill, etc.) by and large Rutgers didn’t have many good looks to wideouts, and it would be hard to point the finger at any of MSU’s starting corners and say “he was a liability.”

I expect Barnett to be featured in this defense sooner than later. He’s simply too talented to keep off the field. But remember, the majority of his practice reps last year were on the other side of the ball, and he didn’t have a typical offseason to work on the skills required to cover B1G wideouts. Cornerback is a notoriously challenging position to transition from high school to college (and college to pro), so I encourage Spartan Nation, while fighting through what promises to be a roller coaster of a season, to be encouraged by the depth in the DB room and continue looking forward to a bright future for Barnett.

Other Hints of Optimism:

  • Wide Receiver Talent – Turnovers aside, it didn’t take long to see the potential in the Spartan receivers. There was a clear connection at all three levels between Lombardi and Reed, and both Reed and Nailor made plays before and after the catch.

  • Drew Beesley – The Spartans featured a healthy rotation of DEs, searching for a consistent option opposite Jacub Panasiuk. Three options were consistently rotated – Michael Fletcher, Drew Beesley, and Jack Camper. None of them had a particularly dominant performance, but Beesley led the group with 5 tackles, including MSU’s lone sack – a strip sack late in the third quarter when MSU needed a break that set up Lombardi and Co. with great field position and a chance to tie the game (which they failed to do, but I digress). A performance like that should weigh heavily in Tucker’s rep chart, and should earn Beesley a larger share of reps this week.

Why Spartan Nation should panic:

There were a lot, I mean… A LOT of reasons a Spartan fan would be panicking after this week 1 battering at the hands of the Rutgers Scarlet Knights. Our running game fell flat, our defensive front seven (…front six?) struggled in a handful of ways, and we never held momentum for more than a few minutes. But I think most Green and White faithful would agree that one thing stood out glaringly above the rest – turnovers. The Spartans had seven turnovers – two interceptions and five lost fumbles. In addition, they had another pick that was called back due to a Rutgers penalty, another fumble that was fortuitously jumped on by AJ Arcuri, and two turnovers on downs. When coaches say “We can’t afford to beat ourselves,” this is exactly the type of performance they’re working every day to avoid.

When you look at this game without the turnovers, a picture emerges of an MSU team that did what it needed to get the first tally in the win column. 100 more total yards (379-276), seven more first downs (23-16), an efficient performance at QB (70% comp %, 300+ passing yards on 31 completions), and a defense that largely got off the field when they had a full field to protect. There were ugly moments, mental mistakes, and a visible lack of experience in a new scheme, but I have no doubt that if the Spartans held onto the ball, they would’ve won this game by double digits.

So, what went wrong? Let’s start with the two interceptions (and why they don’t scare me as much as the fumbles). Rocky’s first interception was a miscommunication between him and Jalen Nailor, made clear by the fact that Nailor was 15 yards down field running a go route when the ball was snared by the Rutgers secondary. It’s hard to pinpoint who made the wrong read – Nailor or Lombardi – but it was almost a carbon copy of a similar crossing of signals a few plays earlier, this time with an opposing defender waiting to pounce. The negative is that it resulted in a turnover, but the positive is that communication can, and typically does, improve with experience together. The second interception was a desperation heave with less than a minute remaining, down two scores, while Lombardi was being hit in the pocket. I’m not going to hold that against any quarterback.

The fumbles, on the other hand, were persistent, varied, and disastrous. Of the six fumbles, three were ripped from the grasp of Spartan ball-carriers (Reed - 2, Jordon Simmons - 1), two were strip sacks of Lombardi in the pocket (one lost), and one was a muffed punt by Nailor. The fumbles by ball carriers and return men should come down to a matter of ball security drills and in-game focus, but the strip sacks are more concerning as they’re a result of poor pass protection by the offensive line and running backs, and a lack of pocket awareness by Lombardi.

It’s easy to say “if we just clean up the big mistakes, there is potential with this team,” and I was the first one singing that tune after the game Saturday and throughout this week. But turnovers are the kind of black cloud that can haunt a program for an entire season if you allow it to become a trend and it turns into a mental battle. Mel Tucker said it himself in a video circulated weeks before the season – “Ball security is job security.” If these guys want to stay on the field (and if Tucker wants the program to feel optimistic going forward), he needs to nip this in the bud quickly. There are still a handful of winnable games on this schedule, but this team needs to make sure they’re competing with the other team, not helping them.

Other Reasons for Concern:

  • Run Game Inefficiency – Spartan running backs combined for 31 carries and 62 yards. An average of 2.0 yards per carry is never going to cut it in the Big Ten, and especially doesn’t lay the foundation for the return of the Pound Green Pound ethos. It’s early in a new scheme, so hopefully Jay Johnson, William Peagler and Chris Kapilovic can come together to show improvement in this area as the season wears on.

  • Defensive Front Seven (Six?) – Not surprisingly, MSU’s defensive front showed a lot of holes in game one. They couldn’t generate any consistency in the pass rush, missed gap assignments in the run game, and struggled to cover running backs in space. I’d personally like to Chase Kline get his shot next to Antjuan Simmons, and consistent production at DT2 and DE2 will be essential to locking down the line.

Thoughts on the QB Situation:

After the game and into this week, the feelings toward Rocky Lombardi’s performance (and Tucker’s decision to play him the whole game) ranged from “he wasn’t the biggest problem” to “fire everyone.” There were a lot of ways one could digest his performance…. It’s easy to justify a desire to see other options, and it would be hard to say he had a good performance.

From my eyes, Rocky had a good, almost great performance that was weighed down by a few of his own glaring mistakes and a trans-Atlantic freighter’s fill of general negativity due to the overall results. I’m not going to try to convince anyone to ignore the mistakes – two (almost three) interceptions, a seeming lack of pocket awareness, and two fumbles is bad. Period. But I also saw a majority of snaps where Rocky moved through his reads while making efficient decisions and getting the ball to playmakers. Let’s face it; very few quarterbacks would have put up a solid performance in the pocket he had to work with. And let’s not forget this was his first start as QB1 holding the reigns of the program (his previous experience coming as a backup lacking first team reps, and generally still young and new to the program). And on top of all that he had to learn a new playbook. And he didn’t get a camp to work with his teammates.

Maybe I’m being easy on him, and he certainly shares a large portion of blame for his three turnovers, but on a down-to-down basis he exceeded my expectations. I didn’t see a guy who was lost on the field and struggling to make any plays. Instead, I saw a composed, budding field general who stood up to a beating, but made a few enormous (hopefully correctible) mistakes that loomed large in a game where the rest of the team didn’t do him any favors.

Looking ahead:

MSU will travel to Ann Arbor to face a Wolverine’s team that drastically outperformed expectations in week 1. As 24.5 point ‘dogs, the Spartans will have their hands full keeping this one close. But hey, it’s a rivalry game, and this season has already proven in every conference that anything can happen…

Go Green, Beat Michigan.

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