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No. 7 Penn State at No. 24 Michigan State: Game Preview

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Penn State looks to bounce back as it takes on its third ranked opponent in as many weeks.

Michigan State v Penn State Photo by Brett Carlsen/Getty Images

Penn State and Michigan State battle it out for the Land Grant Trophy after heartbreaking losses in week nine.

(7) Penn State (7-1, 4-1) vs. (24) Michigan State (5-2, 4-1)

Kickoff: Noon, Spartan Stadium, East Lansing, MI

The Betting Line: Penn State -8.5

TV: FOX- Joe Davis (play-by-play), Brady freaking Quinn (analyst), Bruce Feldman (sideline)

Weather: A cold and cloudy day with temperatures remaining in the 40s and strong probability of rain showers throughout the afternoon.

COACHES:

James Franklin:

PENN STATE RECORD: 32-16, 4th Year

OVERALL RECORD: 56-31, 7th Year

VS. MICHIGAN STATE: 1-2

MARK DANTONIO:

MICHIGAN STATE RECORD: 96-44, 11th Year

OVERALL RECORD: 114-61, 14th Year

VS. PENN STATE: 4-4

NOW THE FUN PART....

MICHIGAN STATE OFFENSE VS. PENN STATE DEFENSE

While the Spartans have shown improvement and have some reliable playmakers on offense, they are still stagnant and rely on defense to win low-scoring games for the most part. Michigan State has managed to defeat Michigan, Iowa and Indiana without scoring more than 17 points, and managed just 17 points in regulation to Northwestern, before ultimately falling 39-31 in triple overtime.

Quarterback Brian Lewerke has shown signs of promise, completing 61.4 percent of passes with 14 touchdowns to four interceptions. The sophomore is comparable to Northwestern’s Clayton Thorson- a big quarterback with a strong arm who is also very mobile and can hurt a defense with his legs. Lewerke is the team’s second-leading rusher with 343 yards and three touchdowns on the season. He is coming off his most productive game, completing 39 of 57 attempts for 445 yards, four touchdowns and an interception against Northwestern.

His main target is one of the Big Ten’s best receivers, Felton Davis III. Davis can be difficult to cover at 6’4’’, but also can be shut down when teams are able to pay close attention to him. During a recent three game stretch against Michigan, Minnesota and Indiana, Felton had just four receptions for 54 yards. Sophomore Darrell Stewart, Jr. is the current receptions leader after catching 11 balls against Northwestern. Freshmen Hunter Rison (yes, Andre’s son) and Cody White are both special talents who seems on the verge of breaking out. White has been incredibly hot, racking up 264 receiving yards in the last two weeks. Tight end Matt Sokol has similar size as Mike Gesicki, but plays a much smaller role in the Spartans offense.

LJ Scott is a big, bruising back who can wear down a defense. While he is one of the better backs in the conference, he lacks the explosiveness of Akrum Wadley and J.K. Dobbins, who both were able to make plays against an otherwise sturdy Penn State run defense. Through seven games, Scott has 511 yards on the ground with four scores and a 4.5 yards per rush average. It should be noted that Bowling Green, Iowa and Northwestern were all able to limit Scott to an average of 2.6 or lower. Scott is not a major threat out of the backfield, but Lewerke typically finds him in the flat a couple times per game.

Something that could play a huge factor is the Spartans’ tendency to put the ball on the ground. Michigan State has a total of 22 fumbles on the season, while Penn State leads the Big Ten in turnover margin at plus-14.

MICHIGAN STATE DEFENSE VS. PENN STATE OFFENSE

It became painfully obvious that Penn State’s offensive line is the team’s greatest weakness as the Nittany Lions collapsed against Ohio State. For the third week in a row, the unit will face off against a very talented front seven. The key to this game is if the Penn State offense will be able to offset the discrepancy and still produce plays like Michigan, or struggle to move the ball on the ground and keep Trace McSorley upright, as we saw throughout the second half against the Buckeyes.

Mark Dantonio has succeeded in making the Spartans a regular contender by producing one of the nation’s best defenses year in and year out. As the defense took a step back in 2016, the Spartans fell apart to finish 3-9. This season, the Spartans have bounced back on the strength of an improved defense much more along the lines of what we’ve seen come out of East Lansing during the Dantonio era.

Defensive end Kenny Willekes performance could go a long ways toward the Spartans coming away with the victory. Penn State’s beleaguered line will need a way to slow down the sophomore who already has four sacks and 8.5 TFLs on the season, and regularly impacts plays by getting to the quarterback. Middle linebacker Joe Bachie is also been a disruptive force, and has been a total revelation this season as he’s developed into one of the Big Ten’s top linebackers. Bachie has accumulated 71 tackles and plays all over the field, and can easily find his way in the backfield, notching three sacks and 7.5 TFLs.

The Spartans are allowing a measly 89.8 yards per game rushing, meaning we may see another week where Penn State has a hard time moving the ball on the ground even with Barkley’s otherworldly talents. This is a typical, fundamentally sound defense, so the misdirection used against Michigan to take advantage of their aggressiveness likely won’t have the same impact against the Spartans. They stand their ground, they stay home, and then make the tackle. Joe Moorhead will need to get creative this week to find holes and keep the offense moving.

The Spartans are slightly weaker against the pass. If they are able to shut down Barkley, it will be crucial for the line to give McSorley time to find an open receiver.

SPECIAL TEAMS

The Spartans have a fairly reliable kicker in Matt Coughlin, who has gone seven for 11 on field goals with a long of 46 yards. Two of those misses came in the loss to Northwestern this past weekend, though. Jake Hartbarger is one of the best punters in the Big Ten, averaging 42.6 yards per punt with a long of 62 yards. He is in his third year as the starter as a junior, and has at least one 60 plus yard punt each season.

Penn State’s early-season kicking woes have been well-documented. Tyler Davis has not seen much action in the last two weeks, connecting on his only field goal attempt from 24 yards out.

Michigan State has a pair of talented return men in Connor Heyward and Darell Stewart, who each average more than 25 yards per kickoff return. Saquon Barkley is always a threat in the return game, and forced Ohio State to kick short to avoid putting the ball in his hands after returning the opening kick for a score. This approach may become commonplace from opponents after Barkley has already scored twice on kickoff returns in conference play.

PREDICTION

Penn State-28 Michigan State-13

This is a game where intangibles will play a huge part. Both teams are coming off heart-breaking losses in the final moments that could ultimately derail their entire seasons. Both squads are very well-coached, so they should be able to bounce back well. However, we’re still talking about college students who are human, flaws and all.

Penn State’s offense will likely struggle at times, especially with a banged up offensive line. The key should come down to Penn State’s defense being able to regain form and limit Michigan State’s offense. They should be successful in shutting down the run game, forcing a young but efficient quarterback to regularly convert third-and-longs. If this happens, Penn State can win somewhat comfortably.

Trace McSorley throws for 280 yards and three touchdowns, with Mike Gesicki, DaeSean Hamilton and Saquon Barkley being the recipient of one each. The defense gets in on the action as well, with Koa Farmer scooping up a fumble for the second week in a row, this time taking it all the way to the end zone to help seal the game. Shareef Miller contributes two sacks, while Grant Haley comes away with a key interception.