There's not too much on the table in this year's installment of the battle for the Land Grand Trophy. With Ohio State wrapping up the Big Ten East, Michigan State's just jockeying for bowl position, and with a losing record in Big Ten play assured for the Nittany Lions, James Franklin's just trying to survive one last battle before putting this roller coaster season behind him.
But if there's been one universal truth over the last few years, it's that the last game of the Penn State season has been completely bonkers. Penn State might not have the horses to win on Saturday, but that doesn't mean they won't put on a show on Senior Day, to honor a senior class who stuck around despite knowing they'd never play in a bowl game.
Anyway, I talked to Pete Rossman, of The Only Colors, who was gracious enough to answer my questions. Later today or tomorrow, he'll publish my responses to his queries. Thanks, Pete!
Black Shoe Diaries: Michigan State has risen to ascendency in a weird time: with Ohio State in transition, Michigan hilariously down, and Penn State fighting through sanctions. Given how strong the top of the Big Ten East could be in the next few years, and the ever-present threat of Pat Narduzzi taking a head coaching job somewhere, is there any concern that the window is closing a bit on Michigan State?
The Only Colors: Not really. Granted, not every year is going to be a Big Ten and Rose Bowl winning season, but Dantonio has shown he can win 9-10 games a season with the recruits he brings in. There’s no guarantee Michigan is going to be back for a few years, and it’s hard to tell yet just how good Penn State will be. I do know that MSU has beaten Georgia, TCU, and Stanford in bowl games the past three seasons, so I have faith MSU will be able to compete if and when other teams improve.
BSD: Speaking of Narduzzi, he's long been one of the best defensive coordinators in the country, but the Michigan State defense hasn't quite seemed as dominant this year as it was in years past. Where is this group vulnerable, and where are they as strong as ever?
TOC: Where they’ve been really vulnerable this season is on deep passes, more specifically fly routes on the sideline where the cornerback is tasked with covering the receiver one and one. When you have a corner like Darqueze Dennard this is no problem, but Darian Hicks has had an off season, which is in part why wide receiver Tony Lippett started at cornerback last week. Good quarterbacks can exploit this – there’s a reason why MSU’s two losses this season were to teams led by Marcus Mariota and J.T. Barrett. So if Hackenberg gets enough time in the pocket, he might be able to hit a couple passes deep and get some points on the board that week.
BSD: On the other hand, it seems like this is the best Sparty offense in recent memory. How in the hell did hiring Jim Bollman actually work out for Mark Dantonio?
TOC: I see the problem – you’ve been listening to Ohio State fans too much. They bitched about the offense then, they bitched that Carlos Hyde didn’t get enough carries in the Big Ten title game last season, and they’ll probably bitch when Barrett doesn’t put up 400+ yards against Michigan this week. Bollman doesn’t do it alone, as he’s the co-offensive coordinator with Dave Warner. Honestly, I think Bollman’s a good coach, and I think he got a disproportionate amount of crap when he was at Ohio State. He was OC when Troy Smith won the Heisman after all.
BSD: Tony Lippett has twice as many catches and touchdowns and three times as many yards as any other Spartan receiver. How much of the passing game runs through Lippett, and what makes him so successful? (Also, what's the deal with him playing corner on Saturday?)
TOC: If I had to point to one thing that makes Lippett a great wide receiver, it’s his ability to rise above a defender (or defenders) to get the ball. There were numerous drops among MSU wide receivers at the beginning of the 2013 season, but none more so than Lippett. He has very good route-running capabilities (he was a QB in high school), very good speed, and good size even if he’s a bit light (6’3", 185-192 lbs. depending on the source). As for him playing corner, it’s a position he played earlier in his career, and Darian Hicks has had a rough go of it lately. I think the coaching staff wanted to take some pressure off of Hicks and see Lippett make a go at it. Some NFL teams may want him at cornerback, and the exposure couldn’t hurt.
BSD: If Penn State pulls off the upset, what will have gone wrong for Michigan State?
TOC: I’ll refer back to something I said earlier – MSU has been better against the long ball in the past two weeks, but that was against C.J. Brown and Gary Nova. Even if he’s had a difficult season, Christian Hackenberg still has the ability to throw the deep ball, so maybe the Nittany Lions score that way. The other thing, as always, is turnovers. Connor Cook looked better this past week against Rutgers, but he can make 2-3 puzzling throws a game. TRENCHANT ANALYSIS ALERT: The Michigan State quarterback must avoid turning the ball over to ensure Michigan State wins the football game.
BSD: How do you see this one shaping up?
I think the Penn State defense really stifles MSU in the first half, and I wouldn’t be surprised to see the Nitts have the lead sometime in said first half. However, I think the MSU ground game wears PSU down, and MSU pulls away with the victory. Final Score: MSU 24, PSU 6. We keep the Land Grant Trophy, and incur the $100,000 in transport expenses to bring the thing back to East Lansing.
Thanks agan, Pete, and remember to read TOC all week long and all season long for the best coverage of Michigan State on these here interwebs.