Penn State tries to avoid a three-game skid to end the regular season, while Michigan State attempts to earn a spot in the Big Ten Championship Game, and possibly to College Football Playoff.
Penn State (7-4, 4-3) vs. Michigan State (10-1, 6-1)
Kickoff: 3:30 p.m., Spartan Stadium, East Lansing, MI
The Betting Line: Penn State +1.5 (no, seriously)
TV: ESPN- Bob Wischusen (play-by-play), Brock Huard (analyst), Shannon Spake (sideline)
Weather: Sunny but cold, with highs just above freezing and little chance of precipitation.
PENN STATE RECORD: 14-10, 2nd Year
OVERALL RECORD: 38-25, 5th Year
VS. MICHIGAN STATE: 0-1
MICHIGAN STATE RECORD: 85-32, 9th Year
OVERALL RECORD: 103-49, 12th Year
VS. PENN STATE: 3-3
...NOW THE FUN PART
MICHIGAN STATE OFFENSE VS PENN STATE DEFENSE
The biggest question heading surrounding the match-up will be the availability of quarterback Connor Cook, who was sidelined for the Spartans stunning victory at Ohio State in week 11. Cook is a three-year starter and NFL-ready quarterback who could hear his name called very early in the draft this May. After a somewhat slow start to the season, Cook is coming off four consecutive 300 yard-plus passing days before being forced the leave the Maryland game early in week 10. For the season, he is completing 56.3 percent of his passes for 2,482 yards. While his completion percentage is far from astounding, there are two stats that truly display his efficiency- 7.98 yards per attempt and 21 touchdown tosses to only four interceptions. If he's ready to go on Saturday, Cook's presence will take the productivity level of the Spartans offense to a completely different level.
If Cook is still hampered come Saturday, the Spartans will go with a dual-quarterback system with junior Tyler O'Connell and sophomore Damion Terry each receiving snaps. O'Connor is more of a pocket passer in Cook's mold, while Terry is a dual-threat. However, it should be noted that both QBs had identical stat lines on the ground against a talented Buckeyes defense- eight carries for 25 yards. O'Connor had a much stronger presence through the air, connecting on seven of 12 passes for 89 yards and a touchdown, while Terry was just one of four for two yards passing. Neither backup had meaningful experience prior to the Ohio State game.
The Spartans utilize a running-back-by-committee approach that has worked well for them throughout the season, and the freshness of the Michigan State backfield was evident against Ohio State. Freshman LJ Scott leads the way, and is a big, bruising back who can pick up tough yardage and wear on a defense. He has 577 yards on 107 carries with nine touchdowns on the season, but is not a strong threat out of the backfield. Sophomore Gerald Holmes is another punishing back with 457 yards on 93 rushes and seven touchdowns. Freshman Madre London is perhaps the best all-around back on the team, but his production has been limited to only six carries in the past two games after suffering an ankle injury early in the season. His workload could certainly increase on Saturday if Dantonio feels he is at 100 percent.
The Spartans have one of the most dangerous players in the Big Ten in Aaron Burbridge, a senior who exploded onto the scene in 2015. Burbridge is far and away Cook's favorite target, and should be in for another big day if Cook returns to action. Regardless of the opponent, Burbridge has been consistently outstanding all year, racking up seven total 100 yard-plus games. Senior Macgarrett Kings Jr. is an excellent deep threat who also knows how to get open and move the chains when needed. He has 33 catches for 458 yards and five touchdowns on the season. Junior R.J. Shelton is another consistent receiver with big-play ability. Shelton is a tremendous athlete who can line up all over the field and cause confusion for opposing defenses.
MICHIGAN STATE DEFENSE VS PENN STATE OFFENSE
When you look at the numbers, the Spartans appear to have a good, but not outstanding defense. But after turning in a performance for the ages against the defending national champion Buckeyes, it's safe to take the sentiment that the Spartans have a semi-soft defense (at least in comparison to recent Spartans squads) and throw it out the window. While the wet and windy conditions may have played a part, there is no denying that a fully healthy Michigan State defense is still among the very best in college football. The Spartans held a vaunted Buckeyes offense, full of explosive NFL talent, to just 137 total yards and five first downs. In fact, the longest drive Ohio State could muster was just 32 yards for the afternoon.
While the Spartans boast an extremely talented front seven, defensive end Shilique Calhoun is the player who will likely cause the most disruption on Saturday. Calhoun is a future first-round pick who causes problems for even the top offensive linemen in the Big Ten. On the season, he has 8.5 sacks and 11.5 tackles for loss, to go along with 37 total tackles. He should have no trouble adding to those totals against Penn State's struggling line on Saturday, and could be in Hackenberg's face just about every time he drops back to pass. Junior Riley Bullough is a hard-nosed middle linebacker who not only leads the team in tackles, but is a versatile playmaker who excels in coverage and blitzing situations alike. Nose tackle Malik McDowell does a fantastic job of penetrating the interior line to stuff plays before they even have the chance to begin. He is extremely active from the tackle position, picking up 10.5 negative hits, 3.5 sacks and 36 tackles on the year. Senior outside linebacker Darien Harris is a smart and versatile player who has regularly shut down his side of the field throughout the year.
When it comes to the Spartans front seven, there are not any particular weak spots to attack. Every player is smart, tenacious and disciplined. And when all the pieces are healthy, they can make life a living hell for opposing offenses. However, if Penn State has any shot of moving the ball regularly, there is one thing they must do- attack the Spartans soft gooey center by throwing the ball deep, especially over the middle. While Montae Nicholson is an outstanding ball-hawking safety who is a nightmare with the ball in his hands, this unit is far from the "No Fly Defense" that led Michigan State to a Big Ten championship in 2013. Teams have proven time and time again that the Spartans are vulnerable deep over the middle. While Penn State has a quarterback with a big-time arm and a slew of tall and athletic receivers, are they able to take advantage of this one weakness? Using history as a guide, it seems much more likely that Penn State continuously sends Saquon Barkley right into the teeth of the Michigan State defense, then counteracts by sending its receivers on short and intermediate routes into heavy traffic of a stacked box. Perhaps this is the week John Donovan finally quiets his rapidly expanding band of detractors and comes up with a gameplan to attack an opponent's weakness by letting Hackenberg sling it around to a more than capable group of receivers. If not, another frustrating afternoon with little offense seems all but inevitable.
You have probably seen plenty of kicker Michael Geiger on the highlight reels this week after he booted a 41-yard field goal to upset the Buckeyes as time expired (and is responsible for one of the best kicker celebrations in recent memory). He is nine of 14 on the season with a long of 46 yards.
In a recurring theme, Penn State will again be behind the eight-ball in the field position battle thanks to the Spartans freshman punter phenom Jake Hartbanger. The Ohio native is averaging 42.3 yards per punt and can blast the ball when needed, as evidenced by the fact he has had a 51 yard-plus punt in eight of 11 games this season. He also has the precision to pin teams deep in their own territory when working with the short field. To add to the field possession woes, the Spartans also have an excellent kick returner in receiver R.J. Shelton, who is averaging 22.5 yards per return with a long of 58 on the season.
Joey Julius returned as the kickoff specialist against Michigan, with limited results. Tyler Davis continues as the placeholder and remained perfect on the season by connecting on all three short field goal attempts.
MICHIGAN STATE-27 PENN STATE-13
As much as I have tried to do the mental gymnastics to find ways that Penn State pulls off the upset, I don't see any way it happens on Saturday. Dantonio has quietly becomes on the the best big game coaches in the nation, and there's no way he will allow for an emotional letdown after one of the biggest wins in program history. Add the fact that a Big Ten Championship, and quite possibly a berth in the College Football Playoff is on the line, and it all but ensures that Michigan State comes out focused and firing on all cylinders to take care of business against a young Nittany Lions squad.
Michigan State jumps out to an early 13-0 lead and never looks back. Penn State fights valiantly but does not have the firepower to get the job done, as the regular season ends with a thud. Saquon Barkley scores on a wheel route that is one of the sole highlights for the Nittany Lions offense on the day, while Torrence Brown shows flashes of what is in store for 2016 with two sacks and a forced fumble.