Penn State looks for its 10th victory of the season against a suddenly dangerous Michigan State squad in the Big Ten regular season finale.
(7) Penn State (9-2, 7-1) vs. Michigan State (3-8, 1-8)
Kickoff: 3:30 p.m., Beaver Stadium, State College, PA
The Betting Line: Penn State -12.5
TV: ESPN- Bob Wischusen (play-by-play), Brock Huard (analyst), Alison WIlliams (sideline)
Weather: Overcast and cool, with temperatures in the upper 30s/low 40s and a small chance of precipitation.
PENN STATE RECORD: 23-14, 3rd Year
OVERALL RECORD: 47-29, 6th Year
VS. MICHIGAN STATE: 0-2
MICHIGAN STATE RECORD: 90-41, 10th Year
OVERALL RECORD: 108-58, 13th Year
VS. PENN STATE: 4-3
...NOW THE FUN PART
MICHIGAN STATE OFFENSE VS PENN STATE DEFENSE
Despite plenty of experience across the board, the Spartans have few obvious strengths on offense. They have an average ground game, one of the worst passing offenses in the Big Ten and are ranked 90th nationally in scoring offense with 25.2 points per game. They could be in for a difficult afternoon against a Nittany Lion defense that has come of age during the second half of the season.
The Spartans’ biggest playmaker is sophomore running back LJ Scott, who is surprisingly quick for a large back who is built to run between the tackles. Scott has seen his workload increase during the second half of the season, gaining 599 rushing yards in the past five games. He’s also a threat out of the backfield, as noted by his 64-yard touchdown reception to give the Spartans an early lead against Ohio State last week. Scott is an emerging star in the Big Ten, and could make the Nittany Lions pay if the defense spends too much time on the field on Saturday.
Senior quarterback Tyler O’Connor is a big dropback passer who can also take off when he sees an opening. He is accurate when given time, but can make poor decisions under distress. He was picked off twice last week against Ohio State and threw three interceptions against Wisconsin earlier in the season, who have one of the very best defenses in the nation. Defensive coordinator Brent Pry should be looking to expose this by dialing up blitzes all day and finding creative ways for the likes of Brandon Bell, Marcus Allen and even cornerback John Reid to get after O’Connor.
RJ Shelton is the Spartans top receiving threat, and is a major home run threat. Reid will look to lock him down with help coming from the safety position. The Buckeyes did an effective job of shutting him down on Saturday, limiting him to just one reception for five yards. Even if the Nittany Lions are able to replicate the Buckeyes success in limiting Shelton, the Spartans will look to get creative to get the ball in his hands throughout the game.
MICHIGAN STATE DEFENSE VS PENN STATE OFFENSE
Penn State’s chances of success on Saturday will likely come down to one key aspect—controlling the line of scrimmage. Penn State’s offensive line is banged up, while the Spartans young defensive line has seen improvement during the past few weeks, and are coming off an impressive performance against Ohio State. Penn State’s line will receive a boost as freshman Connor McGovern will return at right guard after sitting out the Rutgers game as a precaution, replacing Derek Dowrey.
A hallmark of the Dantonio era at Michigan State has been the team’s stout run defense, which has regularly shut down the ground game for opponents. This year has seen a major setback for the Spartans in this regard, as they continue to develop much of their front seven. At times, teams have run the ball straight down their throats, which seems incomprehensible considering the usual stinginess of the Spartans defense. Michigan State is giving up 166.1 yards per game on the ground, coming in at 61st nationally- an area where they typically can be found near the top in the nation. There is a small chance star defensive lineman Malik McDowell returns to action on Saturday, which would really help bolster the Spartans defense. McDowell has been sidelined by an ankle injury since Nov. 5.
Michigan State does a much better job defending the pass, giving up just 189.8 yards per contest (18th nationally). Outside of freshman Justin Layne, the Spartans rely on three upperclassmen in the secondary who don’t make a whole lot of mistakes.
Once again, expect plenty of read-option from Trace McSorley and Saquon Barkley to take advantage of the Spartans run defense. Redshirt freshman Andre Robinson has been more active in the first half as of late, which allows his physical running style to wear down on a defense that can be exploited by the explosiveness of Barkley and Miles Sanders more and more as the game continues. Sophomore Mark Allen also made a strong case for getting touches last week against Rutgers. Allen is a solid all-around back with obvious playmaking abilities.
Michigan State’s defensive line will be able to get to McSorley, so the offensive line will need to find a way give him enough time to find the many deep threats that make this offense so dangerous and keeps defenses from keying in on limiting Barkley.
Michigan State kicker Michael Geiger has a big leg that gives the Spartans a chance to score if they can get the ball within the 35. Sophomore Jake Hartbarger also has a powerful leg, averaging 40.4 yards while regularly blasting the ball deep into opponent's’ territory.
By now, you know what to expect out of Penn State’s trio of kickers- Tyler Davis makes everything that isn’t blocked, Joey Julius regularly kicks the ball through the end zone and Blake Gillikin can flip the field when needed.
Shelton is especially dangerous as a kick returner, so it will be extremely important for Julius not to allow him a chance at a big return. The door could be open for redshirt freshman Irvin Charles to step into the role of the Nittany Lions’ primary kick returner following the fumble by Sanders on the opening kickoff last that gave Rutgers excellent field position to start the contest (which they promptly squandered by gong straight backwards before missing a field goal).
Penn State-30 , Michigan State-20
Despite Michigan State’s abysmal record, I’ve been nervous about this game long before they nearly pulled off an incredible upset in Columbus last weekend. The Spartans have some trouble spots that have sunk their season, but they still have plenty of talent and one of the best head coaches in the business. The Spartans will get be really good again in no time, and a blowout victory against a listless Rutgers squad two weeks ago may have been what was needed to wake this team up and turn a corner.
However, if there’s one thing that stands out about the 2016 Penn State team, it’s their incredible resolve. This team has a never-say-die attitude and plays with a laser-focused determination, despite the abundance of youth on the field. With a potential Big East Division championship on the line on Senior Day under the Beaver Stadium lights (well, starting at some point in the second quarter at least), the Nittany Lions will once again play their hearts out. While Michigan State will make things difficult, Penn State ultimately pulls away in the fourth quarter for a remarkable 10-2 season that very few outside the locker room could have imagined in September.
Brandon “Bam Bam” Bell goes off in his final home game, collecting 17 tackles, two sacks and a forced fumble. Grant Haley comes up big with an interception in the end zone, denying the Spartans a score and Kevin Givens jumps on a fumble to seal the game in the fourth quarter, sending all of Happy Valley into pandemonium.
Barkley ends the season on a high note with 140 rushing yards and two touchdowns, while Mike Gesicki comes up with a huge 40-yards catch-and-run touchdown in the fourth quarter.