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Penn State vs. Michigan State: Game Preview

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Can the Nittany Lions make it three in a row?

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: OCT 26 Penn State at Michigan State Photo by Adam Ruff/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

The Nittany Lions look to extend its winning streak as they battle with the Spartans to move up in pecking order for next week’s crossover game.

Penn State (2-5) vs. Michigan State (2-4)

Kickoff: Noon, Beaver Stadium, State College, PA

The Betting Line: Penn State -14.5

TV: ABC - Dave Flemming (play-by-play), Rod Gilmore (analyst), Paul Carcaterra (sideline)

Weather: A cold day with temperatures in the 30s, with snow showers in the morning gradually turning to flurries.

COACHES:

James Franklin:

PENN STATE RECORD: 58-28, 7th Year

OVERALL RECORD: 82-43, 10th Year

VS. MICHIGAN STATE: 2-4

Mel Tucker:

MICHIGAN STATE RECORD: 2-4, 12th Year

OVERALL RECORD: 7-11, 2nd Year

VS. PENN STATE: First Meeting

FUN FACTS

Penn State and Michigan State will battle for the Land Grant Trophy, universally acknowledged as they most beautiful trophy that has ever been crafted...The trophy has been awarded to the winner since 1993, when Penn State joined the Big Ten...The Nittany Lions will celebrate Senior Day on Saturday. Penn State will honor TE/H Trevor Baker, S Jaquan Brisker, CB Tariq Castro-Fields, OL Will Fries, K/P Carson Landis, WR Isaac Lutz, OL Michal Menet, DT Antonio Shelton, DE Shane Simmons, DE Shaka Toney, S Lamont Wade and WR Benjamin Wilson...this will be the eleventh regular season played in the month of December in program history and the first game ever played on Dec. 12.

MICHIGAN STATE OFFENSE VS. PENN STATE DEFENSE

A question of who will be under center continues to be a trend, this time as Michigan State is unsure if Rocky Lombardi will be available on Saturday. Lombardi was forced out of the Ohio State game on Saturday in the second quarter after being injured on a sack. Freshman Payton Thorne entered the game in his place, faring relatively well by completing 16-of-25 pass attempts for 147 yards, with an interception and no touchdown passes. He also contributed 42 rushing yards and a score, including a nifty 31-yard gain.

At this stage in the season, the Spartans may give the nod to Thorne either way. Lombardi has not proven to be an effective quarterback in the Big Ten, so it could be beneficial for the future of the program to see what they have in Thorne, who could also pose more of a challenge to the Nittany Lions with a lack of available tape to study. Lombardi, a tall dropback quarterback, has completed more than half of his passes in just two games this season - 72.1% against Rutgers and 53.1% against Michigan. During the past four games, Lombardi’s best mark was 45.9% against Iowa. He also has nine interceptions to eight touchdown passes on the season.

Jalen Nailor is a speedy receiver who could challenge the Nittany Lions secondary that has struggled to defend the deep ball this season. Nailor is averaging 20.8 yards per catch, and played a major role in the Spartans upset of Northwestern, catching three passes for 99 yards and a score. Jayden Reed has seen his role gradually increase during his sophomore season, and now leads the team in receptions with 27. He is coming off a five-catch, 79-yard performance against the Buckeyes. One of the best stories coming out of East Lansing this year is that of Tyler Hunt, a punter who was moved to tight end during the offseason, and is now fifth on the team in receptions.

The Spartans have struggled to get the ground game going, averaging under 100 yards of rushing per game. Connor Heyward is the primary back, and has had between 10-28 rush yards in five of six games, with the outlier being a 96-yard performance on 24 carries against Northwestern. He can be an asset out of the backfield though, and is frequently used on short passes on running-plays-disguised-as-passing-plays.

PENN STATE OFFENSE VS. MICHIGAN STATE DEFENSE

It’s clear that the Spartans are no longer a Mark Dantonio-led team. While the offense isn’t quite as helpless as they have been the last several seasons, the defense is no longer nearly as stingy. The days of the Spartans relying on the defense for 7-6 victories are over.

The lowest point total they have allowed thus far is 20 points, and were especially overwhelmed by Rutgers, Iowa and Ohio State, giving up 37, 49 and 52 points respectively. They are currently allowing 34.5 points per contest, which ranks 98th nationally in scoring defense.

While the defense may not be as fearsome, there are still several key players who can do some damage on Saturday. Linebacker Antjuan Simmons leads the way, topping the team with 65 tackles (20 more than anyone else on the team), two fumble recoveries, and 8.5 TFLs, including two apiece in the last two games. Defensive end Drew Beesley can make plays in the backfield as well, accumulating three sacks and 5.5 TFLs on the season. He is also tied for the team lead in quarterback hurries.

The Spartans like to get the opposing quarterback off-rhythm by brining heat from all over, making it crucial for Sean Clifford to play composed and avoid, or at least limit, turnovers. He’s been able to do so the past two weeks, which through no coincidence, have been the only two victories of the season.

Will Levis should receive plenty of snaps as well, as James Franklin seems set on a two-quarterback system for the time being. Hopefully the playcalling is more diverse in his packages, as defenses have adjusted to his routine of crashing between the tackles on the strong majority of plays when he’s on the field.

SPECIAL TEAMS

Michigan State has a quality kicker in Matt Coughlin, who is now in his fourth year as starter. He is eight-of-11 on the season, with all three misses coming in the 40-49 range. He nailed his lone attempt of a 50-yard plus field goal, a 51-yarder to help the Spartans upset Michigan in week two. The Spartans have a future NFL punter with a booming leg in Bryce Baringer. The junior is averaging 43.5 yards per punt, and has a punt of 51 yards or more in five of six games. His season long is a 78-yard blast against Michigan.

Wide receiver Jayden Reed handles kickoff return duties, boasting an average of 20.6 yards per return. His longest return of the season is 39 yards.

PREDICTION

Penn State-37, Michigan State-13

For the first time this season, I am confident that Penn State is poised for victory. This team has overcome the necessary obstacles to find its footing. Most importantly, they now expect to win.

Michigan State has been an inconsistent team this season, which is par for course with a new coaching staff needing to make things up as they go in 2020. They could perform like they did two weeks ago, when they were the only time to hand Northwestern a loss thus far. They could also fail to show up, like they did in games against Indiana and Iowa.

Penn State will be able to take matters in their hands either way. I’m expecting a tight, low-scoring first half with the Spartans up by a field goal. But some key adjustments lead to an offensive explosion in the second half, as the Nittany Lions put the game away in the third quarter.

Sean Clifford has a big day with his legs, rushing for two touchdowns and being on the receiving end of another from Will Levis on a gadget play. Keyvone Lee also earns a rushing touchdown after being set up by a near pick-six by Brandon Smith. Joey Porter Jr. and Daequan Hardy also pick off passes, thanks to a steady pressure from the defensive line that continues over from the Rutgers game.

The good guys roll, giving us some positive vibes and some hope following a frustrating and tumultuous regular season.