When the clock hit zero, mercifully, the score showed a 39-point difference between the 7-5 Penn State Nittany Lions and 11-1 Michigan State Spartans. It is certainly true that at some point, you are what your record says you are and the score is what it is. But the blowout final score was only part of the story on a chilly Saturday evening in East Lansing, one that saw the crowning of the champions in the Big Ten East.
Penn State took the opening kickoff right down the field to the MSU 31 before Christian Hackenberg's pass to Geno Lewis was picked off in the end zone. The junior quarterback had one on one coverage, but the pass sailed too far inside, leaving Lewis to try and play defense. Connor Cook, returning to the starting lineup after missing one game, was aided by Gerald Holmes and directed a nearly perfect nine play, 80-yard drive to put the Spartans up 6-0. Michael Geiger's extra point sailed wide, which turned out to be the only blip on an otherwise perfect evening for Michigan State.
After trading punts, the Lions again drove down the field, all the way to the MSU 1. After incomplete passes on second and third down, James Franklin again made the shocking decision to kick the field goal. The kick was good, and the lead was cut to 6-3, but with a chance to take the lead against the No. 5 team in the nation, Franklin opted for the perceived safe play.
The Lions' defense forced a punt on the ensuing possession, but the offense went backwards, aided by the dominant MSU front. After a three-and-out, the Spartans offense was set up at midfield. Six plays later, Holmes put the Spartans up 10 with a six yard run.
Penn State, as they were able to do much of the day, rather quickly moved downfield, all the way to the MSU 23. It was at that 23 that senior tight end Kyle Carter, fighting for the first down (which he appeared to have, by the way), lost the ball, setting up a 77 yard return by Demetrious Cox, and a 20-3 Michigan State lead. Despite outgaining the Spartans at that point, the Lions found themselves down 17 points.
The game felt on the verge of getting out of hand, but behind Hackenberg's right arm, the Lions drove to the MSU three. A Brian Gaia false start backed Penn State up to the eight. Perhaps the extra space proved helpful. On third down, Chris Godwin came wide open in the back of the end zone for the Lions first touchdown of the day. Right before halftime, the 17 point lead was down to 10, and perhaps, PSU had some momentum.
Instead, Michigan State took the opening kickoff of the second half 75 yards for a 27-10 lead. After a quick PSU three-and-out, the Spartans put the nail into the coffin with a 12 play, 69-yard (nice) drive, and a 34-10 lead. Between both drives, MSU converted four separate third downs. On the day, Dantonio's team was 8-for-11 on third down, while the Lions were just 5-for-15.
PSU did cut the lead to 18 early in the fourth quarter, set up by Saeed Blacknall's 77 yard catch, run, fumble, and recovery. Aided by a pass interference call on Michigan State, Hackenberg ultimately found Godwin in the end zone on fourth down, but missed an open Blacknall on the two point try.
If you are wondering, forgot, or were fortunate enough to miss it, the final 14+ minutes of the game is when things really got out of hand. MSU recovered an attempted onside kick by the Nittany Lions, and quickly drove 44 yards to make it 41-16. Three plays later, a Hackenberg screen pass was deflected right into the arms of Malik McDowell, who returned it 13 yards for a 48-16 lead. On the ensuing kickoff, Koa Farmer fumbled at the nine, which of course was recovered by MSU. Michigan State senior center Jack Allen took the handoff, and scored the final touchdown of the day. Yes, their center scored a touchdown. Off of a handoff.
Michigan State now heads off to Indianapolis to face Iowa in what will likely be a play-in game for the College Football Playoff. Penn State will wait to hear their destination and opponent in a bowl game, perhaps in Jacksonville or Nashville.
Three Completely Useless, Probably Useless Thoughts
1. I wrote earlier this year, probably several times, that when up against the best teams in the country, Penn State is simply not good enough to miss chances. Passing up field goals at the one-yard line for the second time in two weeks is simply not something an undermanned Penn State team can do. Not to mention the stats that say you should go for it in that situation every time. A touchdown in that spot against Michigan State probably does not change the outcome, but I cannot believe James Franklin opted to kick the field goal in that spot again.
2. Speaking of missed chances, four turnovers killed Penn State. Fourteen points came directly off of PSU miscues, with seven more set up by a nine yard field. All told, 27 of the Spartans' 55 points came off of those giveaways. The Lions have been very good all season at hanging onto the ball, but that came crashing down yesterday. There is plenty to hang on coaching – 18 yard field goals and red zone execution/play calling among them – but turnovers are not one of them.
3. There was plenty of, uh, feedback during the game yesterday regarding a Penn State defense struggling to get to Connor Cook. Like most defenses, Bob Shoop's scheme relies on getting to the quarterback, forcing mistakes, or creating negative plays. Without Carl Nassib and Garrett Sickels, both of whom missed the game with injuries, the Lions could not get to Cook, and the veteran group of receivers was able to find openings with that extra time.