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No. 6 Penn State at Michigan State: Game Preview

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Penn State looks to avoid another upset at the hands of the Spartans to remain unbeaten.

Michigan State v Penn State Photo by Justin K. Aller/Getty Images

Penn State will need to end a two-game losing streak to the Spartans to remain undefeated before heading into the bye week.

(#6) Penn State (7-0, 4-0) vs. Michigan State (4-3, 2-2)

Kickoff: 3:30 p.m., Spartan Stadium, East Lansing, MI

The Betting Line: Penn State -7

TV: ABC - Sean McDonough (play-by-play), Todd Blackledge (analyst), Holly Rowe (sideline)

Weather: A sunny and dry (!!!!!!) day with temperatures in the mid-50s.

COACHES:

James Franklin:

PENN STATE RECORD: 52-21, 6th Year

OVERALL RECORD: 76-36, 9th Year

VS. MICHIGAN STATE: 1-4

Mark Dantonio:

MICHIGAN STATE RECORD: 111-54, 13th Season

OVERALL RECORD: 129-71, 16th Season

VS. PENN STATE: 6-4

NOW THE FUN PART....

MICHIGAN STATE OFFENSE VS. PENN STATE DEFENSE

For the third consecutive week, Penn State’s defense is facing an offense led by a tall, dropback quarterback who is heavy on experience. Senior Brian Lewerke is back to lead the Spartans offense as a three-year starter, and played a major role in the past two years as the Spartans pulled off consecutive upsets against the Nittany Lions. Therefore, you may want to take everything you know about Lewerke outside of this series and toss it out the window as he always seems to play his best game of the year against Penn State.

While Lewerke has been steady throughout his time with Michigan State, the one improvement that jumps out is his ability to take care of the football this season. A season ago, Lewerke threw more interceptions than touchdowns (8:11). He’s shown staggering improvement this season, with 11 touchdowns to three interceptions. Outside of this, Lewerke’s numbers are fairly pedestrian. He’s completing 57.5 percent of his passes and averaging 228 yards per game through the air. Lewerke is plenty mobile for his size. He does a nice job of avoiding pressure in the pocket, and while he won’ carry often on designed runs, has the ability to pick up valuable yardage when he sees an opening.

While star receiver Felton Davis III is out of eligibility, Lewerke still has plenty of weapons at his disposal. Darrell Stewart Jr. has stepped into a larger role, catching at least five passes per game with three 100-plus yard performances in seven games. His size and experience will help him find some openings in the Penn State defense. Cody White is another dangerous option who uses his combination of height and athleticism to create mismatches. Tight end Matt Seybert is another big target with experience that Lewerke can rely on when a play is needed.

Freshman Elijah Collins is the primary back for the Spartans, and has done well in his first year. He is averaging 5 yards per carry, and has 492 yards and three touchdowns in seven games. Recently, he performed well against Ohio State with 63 yards on 12 carries, but struggled to get going against Wisconsin with just 16 yards on eight carries. Despite Collins’ early success, the Spartans have one of the worst rushing offenses in the nation, and things won’t get much easier against the Nittany Lions’ ferocious front seven.

The Spartans offensive line has done a good job keeping Lewerke upright, giving up 10 sacks on the season. However, six of those 10 came in the last two games against the Buckeyes and Badgers.

The key for Penn State’s defense will be to get pressure on Lewerke, especially on third downs where he’s shown he can stand in the pocket and eventually find the open man when given time.

PENN STATE OFFENSE VS. MICHIGAN STATE DEFENSE

Regardless of the season, one thing never really changes- Michigan State will put together an all-around stingy defense that forces offenses to truly earn their yardage. Although it’s not as dominant as some recent versions, this defense will still make it difficult for the Nittany Lion offense to find its rhythm on Saturday.

While Michigan State is nearly always at or near the top of the rushing defense list, this year they are a little further down at 27th nationally, giving up 117.7 yards per game. They are still slightly better than Michigan, which did an effective job of shutting down the Nittany Lions ground game last week, especially in the second half. This number is also slightly skewed as the Spartans have faced two of the nation’s best running backs in Jonathan Taylor and J.K. Dobbins. The Spartans passing defense is a little further down at 35th, yielding 196.6 yards per contest. So while they may not be flat-out dominant, the defense is still doing well and certainly will benefit from an extra week of planning on how to shut down the Penn State offense.

Joe Bachie is back to lead the Spartans defense, which seems as though he’s been doing since 2003. Not only does he have an outstanding name, he’s also one of the best linebackers in the nation. He’s a smart player that always seems to know where the ball is going pre-snap, and leads the team with 65 tackles in addition to his 3.5 sacks and 8.5 TFLs. He also does a terrific job in coverage and his versatility allows him to make plays all over the field. Senior defensive end Kenny Willekes is another familiar face, and has the ability to take over a game. He leads the team with four sacks and 11 quarterback hurries, demonstrating his major impact on the passing game. Junior cornerback Josiah Scott is a standout of the secondary, leading the team with two interceptions and is fourth in tackles.

We could go on and on recognizing the individual talent on the Spartans defense, but like always, there will be several players capable of making it a very long day for Sean Clifford. They know how to bring pressure, and do a fine job of making plays in the backfield to force second/third-and-longs.

This will be another major test for Penn State’s offensive line after facing two formidable front sevens in the past two weeks. Clifford will need to remain comfortable in the pocket to be effective, and they must find a way to gain positive yardage on first downs to avoid regular three-and-outs that turn the game into a defensive slugfest. If that happens, the Spartans will have a chance to pull out the game at the very end once again.

SPECIAL TEAMS

The Spartans return kicker Matt Coghlin, who is coming off two outstanding seasons. However, his accuracy has dipped in his junior season, and is 11 of 17 on field goals in 2019. It should be noted that four of those field goals were in the 40-49 yard range. His long on the season is 47 yards, with a career high of 49 yards. Michigan State also returns punter Jake Hartbarger, a senior who will be playing on Sundays next fall. Hartbarger has an incredibly powerful leg, and has a long of at least 55 yards in six of seven games this season. He’s also had 60-plus yard punts in each of the last three games. He will be a huge asset in a game that seems destined to come down to field position once again.

Michigan State has not been very explosive in the return game this season. Darrell Stewart Jr. has an average of 21.6 yards per kick return, but a long of 31 yards. Cody White is averaging 5.7 yards per punt return with a season long of just 10 yards.

PREDICTION

Penn State-20, Michigan State-13

I’ll be honest, this game really scares me. We’ve seen what Mark Dantonio and company can do against this team. We’ve witnessed the two shocking upsets from the last two seasons. It’s hard not to be concerned about history repeating itself.

Then there are the intangibles that all seem to go in Michigan State’s favor. Most notably, they are coming off a bye week while Penn State will need to make a road trip after facing two very physically-demanding opponents. They must also come off the emotional high following a huge White Out victory. The Spartans also have several experienced leaders on both sides of the ball, who will come in fully expecting to beat a top-10 Nittany Lions squad for the third year in a row.

While it will be a tough task, this year’s Penn State team has shown some subtle, yet major signs of growth. The definitely have proven to possess the resiliency that may have been missing in the past. They’re the overall better team, and should still come away victorious on Saturday.

No one lights up the stat sheet, but KJ Hamler is his usual self with a long touchdown reception and a punt return that sets up a huge score in the second half. Noah Cain gets the lions share of carries, and powers his way into the end zone for a score while Pat Freiermuth has a few key catches to keep the chains moving.

Micah Parsons builds off his monster performance a week ago to lead the team with 11 tackles and two TFLs. Yetur Gross-Matos contributes two sacks, while Robert Windsor chips in a sack and two TFLs as part of a big day overall for the Wild Dogs. The good guys come out on top of a tough battle heading into the bye week.