PISCATAWAY, N.J. (AP) — While Rutgers may have the same players who knocked off Michigan State in the season opener a year ago, these No. 11 Spartans are vastly different.
Coach Mel Tucker has infused his lineup for Saturday’s game at SHI Stadium with 20 transfers, including five starters. Payton Thorne also has taken over as the starting quarterback.
The changes have Michigan State (5-0, 2-0 Big Ten) off to its best start since 2015, when they won their first eight games and made the College Football Playoff. It’s a big change from last season’s 2-5 record during the pandemic.
Rutgers, which went 3-6 last season in Greg Schiano’s return, is in the meat of its schedule. The Scarlet Knights (3-2, 0-2) are riding a two-game losing streak after losses to No. 9 Michigan and No. 7 Ohio State.
“You’ve also got to remember, now, that game — we all practiced during school,” Rutgers coach Greg Schiano said of last year’s game against the Spartans. “That’s a whole different look, as I’ve said before. I think different programs were affected differently. Now, this is real.”
The key to the Rutgers win last year was forcing seven turnovers and converting those into 21 points. Michigan State has three turnovers in five games this season.
The Spartans have gotten big contributions from the transfers.
Running back Kenneth Walker, who came from Wake Forest, has rushed for 680 yards to lead all Football Bowl Subdivision players. Left tackle Jarrett Horst is starting after transferring from Arkansas State, while the defense has three transfer starters from the SEC — linebacker Quavaris Crouch (Tennessee) and cornerbacks Chester Kimbrough (Florida) and Ronald Williams (Alabama).
“Coach Tucker always talks about something special happening here in East Lansing,” linebacker Michael Dowell said. “We’ve known that throughout the whole summer and even throughout the whole spring. I think now, East Lansing and the rest of the country is kind of seeing that.”
Michigan State’s Jayden Reed leads all major college football players with 176.6 all-purpose yards per game. He ranks second with 23.2 yards per catch, eighth in kickoff returns, and is also among the nation’s leaders with eight touchdowns, five catches for scores, and 92.6 yards receiving per game.
The past two weeks Reed has scored on punt returns to help the Spartans rally to beat Nebraska in overtime and to start strong against Western Kentucky.
Reed joined Bill Simpson (1972) and James Ellis (1951) as the only players in program history to score twice on punt returns in a single season.
Rutgers has lost its last 32 games against ranked teams. Its last upset of a Top 25 team was in 2009 when it knocked off No. 23 South Florida 31-0.
This will mark only the second time in program history the Scarlet Knights are playing ranked teams in three consecutive games. The last time was 2007 when it took on No. 2 South Florida, No. 6 West Virginia and No. 16 Connecticut. It beat South Florida and lost the next two.
Since joining the Big Ten in 2014, Rutgers is 0-24 against ranked conference foes.
The Spartans will be without linebacker Cal Haladay for the first half because he was ejected last week for targeting. Haladay had a career-high 10 tackles and forced and recovered a fumble in the win over Western Kentucky.
Rutgers is banged-up. Leading receiver Bo Melton (shoulder) and left tackle Raiqwon O’Neal (foot) were hurt against Ohio State.
Josh Youngblood, who caught a TD last weekend, would replace Melton. Either Matt Rosso or Brendan Bordner could start at tackle.
Backup safety Naijee Jones will have to sit the first half because of a targeting penalty.
Rutgers quarterback Noah Vedral had his most disappointing game of the season against Ohio State.
After not throwing an interception in the first four games, Vedral was picked off three times by the Buckeyes. Ohio State freshman Denzel Burke scored on a 23-yard interception return on the first one. It came 40 seconds after Ohio State had taken a 7-0 lead.
Vedral has hit 92 of 138 passes for 914 yards and six touchdowns. He’s connected on 66.6% of his passes, which is 33rd nationally and fourth in the Big Ten.
Thorne has been outstanding at quarterback for the Spartans. He is 82 of 130 for 1,236 yards and 11 touchdowns. He has also run for two scores.
Thorne played in four games for the Spartans last season, starting the last one against Penn State. He was 22-of-39 passing for 325 yards and three TDs in that start. The 325 yards were a freshman record and the most by a Spartan quarterback in his first start.