By Tom Canavan
PISCATAWAY, N.J. (AP) — No. 21 Michigan State isn’t the only team in the Big Ten having a turnaround season. Look at Rutgers.
The Scarlet Knights’ (4-7, 3-5) mark will not convince anyone that the football program has turned the corner in Chris Ash’s second season, but it is a big improvement. A year ago, Rutgers was winless in the conference and 2-10 overall.
Michigan State is a victory Saturday away from flipping its 3-9 record around from last year. It’s clearly the comeback season of the year in the league.
What Rutgers has done is impressive, too, at least historically.
Only six of the previous 30 Big Ten teams since 1960 coming off a winless league season have won at least three in conference play the next year. Only two have won four games, Minnesota (1989) and Iowa (1968).
Since joining the Big Ten in 2014, Rutgers has never won more than three league games in a season.
“It’s going to be a huge challenge, huge test and another great opportunity for us to go out and finish, but it’s about the seniors this week,” Ash said of senior day at High Point Solutions Stadium. “We’re still trying to get another Big Ten win. If we were to win this game, it would be four Big Ten wins. It hasn’t happened since Rutgers has been in the Big Ten. Looking to build positive momentum going into the offseason, which is huge, also. So there’s a lot on the line, a lot at stake and a lot to play for here this week.”
Michigan State has exceeded even optimistic expectations for the season so far.
“I think it’s tough when you lose games, and we had not lost like we had last year, we were more even,” Spartans coach Mark Dantonio said. “But any time you go through something like that where there’s a lot of frustration, I think you bounce back a little stronger. I think sometimes you have to go to those depths to find yourself a little bit, to reach down. I think that’s happened with our football team.”
Some things to watch in between two of the Big Ten’s turnaround teams.
AND THE QUARTERBACK IS? After losing two straight and being embarrassed 41-0 at Indiana, Ash is mulling a quarterback change. Gio Rescigno is 3-3 since replacing graduate transfer Kyle Bolin. Rescigno may be the favorite to start again, but Bolin offers a better passing option against the nation’s No. 7 run defense in the nation. Freshman Johnathan Lewis is a dual threat who could make his first start.
WHAT A WALK-ON: Michigan State sophomore defensive end Kenny Willekes tied his career high with two sacks and three tackles for loss in the Spartans win over Maryland last weekend. A former walk-on, he is tied for second in sacks per game with 0.64 per game in the conference and is third in tackles for loss with an average of 1.32. He has seven sacks and 14 ½ tackles for loss on the season, both team highs.
SENIOR DAY: Rutgers is planning to say good bye to 27 seniors and graduate students, who will be playing their final home game. Among those leaving are receiver-returner Janarion Grant, who was limited to four games coming off a major ankle surgery a year ago, defensive lineman Sebastian Joseph, offensive lineman Dorian Miller and conference-leading punter Ryan Anderson. Rutgers plans on returning 18 of 22 starters next season.
SPARTANS DUAL THREAT: Sophomore quarterback Brian Lewerke is averaging 259.3 total yards. He led the Spartans in rushing through the first five games. In his first season as the starter, Lewerke has passed for 2,358 yards, 16 touchdowns and seven interceptions. He needs 41 yards to record the most yards of total offense by a Michigan State sophomore, breaking the mark of 2,813 set by Connor Cook in 2013.
RUNNING THE BALL: The only way Rutgers win is if it runs the ball well. The problem is the Spartans are the second-best run defense in the conference, allowing an average of 109.7 yards. Unless the Scarlet Knights move Michigan State off the line, the result might be similar to last year’s 49-0 blowout.
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