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Interviews with Football Frenemies: Michigan State Edition

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How does a Michigan State blogger feel about the Spartans’ chances with both Land Grant Trophy rivals coming off of heartbreaking losses?

Indiana v Michigan State Photo by Duane Burleson/Getty Images

The Land Grant Trophy game doesn’t need College Football Playoff implications to be exciting, but with Penn State looking to keep its title hopes alive and Michigan State searching for a signature win, this year’s version has a little extra juice.

There’s also a subplot surrounding Saquon Barkley and his quest for the Heisman Trophy. Despite a disappointing performance at Ohio State that included just 44 rushing yards, Barkley is still the favorite to take home the award. However, that could change this week if the tailback isn’t able to overcome Michigan State’s tough run defense.

Fans and the media might be concerned with Penn State’s ability to show up on the road after such a heartbreaking loss last Saturday, but this game will likely come down to Michigan State’s offense moving the ball against a group of Nittany Lion defenders that was shockingly ineffective in the fourth quarter of that game. To get some insight into the improving Spartan passing game and more, we talked to McLain Moberg of SB Nation’s Michigan State blog, The Only Colors.

Black Shoe Diaries: After three straight games of throwing for fewer than 200 yards, Brian Lewerke exploded for 445 passing yards on 57 attempts in the overtime loss to Northwestern last weekend. Can we expect the Spartans to throw the ball as aggressively against Penn State? How much of Lewerke’s stats were enhanced by the three overtimes?

The Only Colors: I think we can expect Michigan State to stay balanced which is what they typically try to do. For years, the Spartans have built teams around solid running backs. Currently, MSU has a stable of backs that includes L.J. Scott, Gerald Holmes, and Madre London . Now, don't get me wrong, the running game has completely struggled this season (64th in the nation for rushing offense) but they have still managed to rush it 332 times in eight games.

Brian Lewerke's stats were certainly enhanced due to the three overtimes, but overall he played extremely well. Sure, he made some mistakes, but all young quarterbacks do. Heck, even experienced ones do. How he does against Penn State will depend on if he can find a consistent deep ball, which he has struggled with this year. Along with absorbing any other errors he committed against Northwestern.

BSD: L.J. Scott has just one 100-yard rushing game this season and only totaled 27 yards from scrimmage against Northwestern. Can we expect a bounce-back game from the junior tailback? Is there any chance he is held to fewer than 10 carries like he was last Saturday, or was the workload a factor of his recent legal trouble?

TOC: L.J. Scott is a terrific running back when he wants to be. He has all the talent in the world. I've heard some analysts say he is Le'Veon Bell with a fumble problem. But that's just it; the fumbles are killing Michigan State this season and many of them have came at inopportune times by Scott himself. So no, I don't see him breaking out for another 100-yard game against Penn State. I think he will see the field and his lack of snaps last week has more to do with Coach Dantonio's "hot hand" philosophy than anything else.

BSD: Felton Davis III has developed into a major scoring threat with three multiple-touchdown games already. What makes the junior wide receiver so dangerous around the end zone?

TOC: Felton Davis III. What can I say about this guy other than the fact that he is amazing? The kid has became an instant threat in the red zone and likely Brian Lewerke's favorite target (other than these last few weeks where Spartan fans have seen Cody White come alive). But this is all about Davis right now. The former three-star recruit is 6'4” and weighs in just shy of 200 pounds. He is obviously tall, big, and has great hands. All three are qualities fans love to see when it comes to their favorite red zone player. Bottom line is if Davis is lined up outside the numbers with one-on-one coverage expect Lewerke to throw it to him.

BSD: Run defense is a big part of Michigan State’s resurgence in 2017, as the Spartans are the only Big Ten team allowing fewer than three yards per carry. How big of an impact has sophomore linebacker and first-year starter Joe Bachie had? Are you confident that the Spartans can slow down Saquon Barkley like they did with Northwestern’s Justin Jackson?

TOC: It feels good to see a resurgent Spartan defense in 2017. After what happened last year, the fan base is absolutely loving this. I mentioned Joe Bachie's name last week but I am more than happy to comply again. He now has 71 total tackles on the year; 34 of those have been solo. He also has three sacks, two forced fumbles, and an interception. This man is all over the place and the Nittany Lions can expect him to rack up close to 10 tackles (his usual) with hopefully a few big plays in the mix. But no one is stopping Saquon Barkley and it doesn't matter if MSU hinders what he can do on the ground. Barkley impacts all offensive aspects of the game. He can line up as a receiver and haul one in if he feels like. He can return kick/punt returns if given the option. Saquon is a big-time Heisman candidate for a reason and I expect him to tip the scales again this weekend.

BSD: The pass defense has been solid as well for the most part, but Clayton Thorson just had one of his best games of the season against Michigan State. How well is the team prepared to face a Penn State passing game that is among the most aggressive in the country?

TOC: Penn State has a great offense. It is extremely aggressive through the air. I expect this will give the Spartans fits because Mark Dantonio puts his corners on islands. This isn't a new concept or strategy for him. Coach D has done this the entire time he's been at MSU. He basically lines his guys up and says our guys are better than yours. It's surprisingly successful except when you play against a team like the Nittany Lions who I think have the potential to really expose the Spartan defense deep down field. If the corners are getting beat (I expect they will at some point), then Michigan State is in for a long day.

BSD: The Spartans are eight-point underdogs at home on Saturday. How do you see the game going for Michigan State?

TOC: I don't like this game at all for the Spartans. I wouldn't have felt great about it even if they had beaten Northwestern. The Wildcats game was huge; had MSU won then losing to Penn State would have been fine. Being undefeated in the conference was crucial heading into this weekend. Unfortunately, it didn't end well for Sparty. It also didn't end well for the Nittany Lions. So now we have a fired-up Penn State team coming into East Lansing looking to win big and avenge its loss to the Buckeyes.

When we get right down to it, Penn State is just a better football team than the Michigan State Spartans this year. Trace McSorley and Saquon Barkley are going to be far too huge for this young Spartan team to overcome. A lot of this is going to fall on Brian Lewerke's shoulders and I just don't see him being able to overcome such a dominant football team even if he is getting better week to week. The Spartans lose back-to-back games and fall at home for the second time in 2017. Penn State wins it 35-14.

Thanks again to McLain for answering our questions. For more on Michigan State sports all year round, make sure to check out The Only Colors!