Penn State hopes to close the regular season out with a meaningful victory, while Michigan State looks to bounce back from an embarrassment in Columbus with a NY6 Bowl destination in mind.
Penn State (7-4, 4-4) vs. Michigan State (9-2, 6-2)
Kickoff: 3:30 p.m., Spartan Stadium, East Lansing, MI
TV: ABC - Sean McDonough (play-by-play), Todd Blackledge (analyst), Molly McGrath (sideline)
Weather: A cold day with temperatures hovering right above freezing, with a chance of snow showers later in the day.
PENN STATE RECORD: 67-32, 8th Year
OVERALL RECORD: 90-47, 11th Year
VS. MICHIGAN STATE: 3-4
MICHIGAN STATE RECORD: 11-7, 2nd Year
OVERALL RECORD: 16-14, 3rd Year
VS. PENN STATE: 0-1
Saturday will mark James Franklin’s 100th game as head coach at Penn State...The all-time Penn State-Michigan State series is tied at 17-17-1...the Nittany Lions shutout of Rutgers last week was the second of Big Ten play in ‘21, the first time the team has shutout more than one conference opponent since joining the Big Ten in ‘93...Arnold Ebiketie will be seeking double-digit sacks as he enters the game with 9.5, good for third in the conference...he will also look to maintain his lead among Big Ten peers with 16.0 TFLs...Penn State is 4-4 all-time in games played on Nov. 27, which includes a heartbreaking 6-5 loss to the Steelton YMCA in 1902...The Nittany Lions and Spartans have faced off on that date twice, with Penn State winning 38-37 in ‘93 before falling 28-22 in 2010.
MICHIGAN STATE OFFENSE VS. PENN STATE DEFENSE
The key to stopping Michigan State’s offense is by limiting Kenneth Walker III as much as possible. Walker has earned much-deserved Heisman buzz throughout the season, and while it’s safe to say he is out of the race following a 25-yard day against Ohio State, he should be sitting front row in New York when the Heisman is handed to
CJ Stroud the eventual winner.
What sets Walker apart? He has a broad skillset and does everything well, but has the vision and quickness to set him apart. He easily finds the creases, makes decisive cuts and is downfield before you blink. He is averaging 136.2 yards rushing per game with a 6.4 yard per carry average. If you remove the Ohio State and Youngstown State games when he was seldom used, the average jumps to 157.3 yards per game. He also has 18 touchdowns on the season, with a season-high five against Michigan. Penn State’s defense is well-suited against run-first opponents, although Walker is the special type of back who can create big plays out of nothing.
Quarterback Payton Thorne has been a pleasant surprise, and has certainly benefitted by one of the nation’s top rushing attacks. He’s struggled against the better defenses in the conference, and his numbers become much less impressive when the non-conference schedule of YSU, Miami (Fl.) and Western Kentucky are removed - a 59% completion rate and 13-8 TD:INT ratio. Thorne has had his best game (season-highs of a 73.3% completion rate, 287 yards, and four touchdowns against Minnesota) and worst game (38% with 158 passing yards against Ohio State) in the last two weeks.
Simply put - he’s capable but not consistent, and can struggle when the defense is able to limit Walker.
Thorne has a few dangerous receivers who can make game-breaking plays whenever a defense gets caught focusing too much on the run game. Jayden Reed and Jalen Nailor have combined for 78 catches, 1,444 yards and 13 touchdowns on the season. Both are 6’0’’ and under 200 lbs. and both can stretch the field or make tough catches to move the chains. Tre Mosley has also been a dependable option throughout the season.
PENN STATE OFFENSE VS. MICHIGAN STATE DEFENSE
The most notable thing about the Spartans defense is their inability to defend the passing game. To say Michigan State has one of the worst secondaries in the entire nation is not an exaggeration - they are ranked 130 out of 130 by allowing 339.9 yards through the air per game. The Spartans were able to race to a 9-1 record despite this, but things came to a head in Columbus last week. The Spartans playoff hopes were dashed as Ohio State scored touchdowns on their first seven possessions to jump to a 49-0 lead by halftime. C.J. Stroud likely won the Heisman by tossing for 432 yards and six scores in a game where he had twice as many passing touchdowns as incompletions.
This lines up well for Penn State, which could see the return of Sean Clifford, or if he is not able to go, the first career start for Christian Veilleux, who far exceeded expectations against Rutgers. Either will have a group of seriously talented passcatchers, led by the nation’s finest wideout in Jahan Dotson and budding superstar Parker Washington.
Keyvone Lee has finally separated himself from the pack among the Penn State running backs, although the Nittany Lions will again depend on the passing game to make the offense go.
Penn State’s offensive line will need to keep defensive ends Jeff Pietrowski and Jacub Panasiuk, who each have 5.5 sacks on the season. Senior Drew Beesley is another who can get to the quarterback. Safety Xavier Henderson can be used all over the field, and is a cross between a safety and linebacker. He leads the team with 89 tackles and has three sacks.
Longtime Spartans kicker Matt Coughlin is having his worst season since earning the job back in 2017. He’s 10 of 16 on field goals for the season, and is just 4 of 10 on attempts of 30 yards or more. Punter Bryce Baringer is having an incredible season, however. His current average is just shy of 50 yards per punt, and has a punt of 65 yards or more in six games this season.
Penn State-27, Michigan State-20
I never thought Sparty had a chance against Ohio State last week, as the match-up between Ohio State’s remarkable receiving corps and the worst pass defense in the nation wouldn’t keep Michigan State in the game. Jahan Dotson and company must be licking their chops at the same thought of facing the Spartans secondary.
Michigan State has had the better season, and deserve all the heavy praise for racing into the top 10 in a year they were supposed to be at the bottom of the Big Ten. But looking at the way they match-up, there’s a reason Penn State opened up as a slight favorite. It’s not just that the passcatchers can overwhelm the Spartans back seven, there’s also the defense’s ability to hinder the run (Illinois game aside) that can cause problems for the Michigan State offense. They will need to keep Walker under 100 yards and force the game into Thorne’s hands, making him deal with the Nittany Lions aggressive pass rush and secondary.
Maybe it’s the way the team responded last week under a terrible set of circumstances that could have easily sunk them. Or maybe it’s just the thought of a few days away from the office to consume way too much food, dark beers and football. Regardless, I’m feeling optimistic about the Nittany Lions on Saturday.