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Preview: Michigan State vs. Penn State


No real need for a full introduction with the usual "here's why this game is super-important" pablum.  A win gets MSU its first Big Ten championship in 20 years.  To get there, MSU will have to 1) win at Penn State for the first time in 35 years, and 2) avoid the kind of faceplant MSU has performed in similar situations in recent years.  (See: Ohio State '08, Penn State '08, Iowa '10, among others.)  The good news is that this Penn State team, while improving, is still a far cry from the outfit that blew out MSU in 2008 and 2009.

So, right to it:

WHEN MICHIGAN STATE IS ON DEFENSE: So, it's difficult to get a solid handle on the Penn State offense.   Things changed for the better when Matt McGloin replaced Robert Bolden as the starting quarterback prior to the Michigan game; the Lions have gone 3-1 since then.  However, the three wins have come against the 6th, 9th, and 11th best scoring defenses in the conference.  The one loss came to Ohio State, which is first in scoring defense.  (FWIW, MSU is third.)  So, how has McGloin done in those four games?

Opponent Att Comp Yards TDs INTs Efficiency Yds/Att
Michigan (8th) 17 28 250 1 0 147.5 8.9
N'western (4th) 18 29 225 4 0 172.8 7.8
Ohio St. (1st) 15 30 159 2 2 103.2 5.3
Indiana (11th) 22 31 315 2 0 177.6 10.2


That's a 150.4 passer efficiency across those four games, which would be good for 22nd-best in the country -- one spot behind our own Kirk Cousins.  The number in parentheses next to each opponent is that team's pass efficiency defense rank in conference.  MSU ranks 3rd in the conference, but is substantially behind Ohio State and not far ahead of Northwestern.  That's distressing, because McGloin shredded Northwestern in the second half, and was able to do so mostly because the Wildcats didn't pressure McGloin at all -- no sacks and no hurries.  As we all know, MSU's defensive line has struggled mightily to generate quarterback pressure.  Relatedly: Penn State has allowed less than one sack per game.  MSU needs an exceptional defensive line effort, but that's always the case in a big game.

McGloin's top target is Derek Moye, who is 6'5" and athletic and will be a very, very tough assignment for Chris Rucker or Johnny Adams.  The second Nittany Lion option is Brett Brackett, who is 6'6" and will be a very, very tough cover for whichever cornerback doesn't draw the Moye assignment.  Conversely, the main slot receiver -- Devon Smith -- is 5'7".  Seriously.  Graham Zug caught two touchdown passes against MSU last season, but has been only a marginal contributor this year.

Evan Royster has been Penn State's running back since I was fourteen years old.  He's had a very schizophrenic season: outstanding against Temple, Michigan, and Northwestern, and somewhere between mediocre and non-existent in all other games.  Royster ran for 114 yards on only 13 carries in East Lansing last season, so he'll surely have Pat Narduzzi's attention.  True freshman Silas Redd has supplanted Stephfon Green as PSU's secondary option at running back.  Redd has good speed and has broken big runs in several recent games.  Here's the big picture:

Alabama 31 127 0 4.1
Iowa 27 76 0 3.6
Illinois 24 81 0 3.4
Minnesota 30 145 1 4.8
Michigan 40 185 4 4.0
N'western 46 260 1 5.7
Ohio St. 32 113 0 3.5
Indiana 42 171 2 4.1


So.  Penn State has beaten up on the conference's four worst rush defenses (Northwestern, Michigan, Indiana, and Minnesota are 8-9-10-11 in the conference standings).  MSU has, statistically, the third-best rush defense in the conference.  Ohio State is first, Iowa is second, and Illinois is fifth, and Penn State had very poor showings against each of those teams.  (Wisconsin is fourth, and is off PSU's schedule this season.)  So, if MSU can keep things to form, Penn State shouldn't get too much on the ground.  That's a big "if," obviously.

I think the key, as always, is the play of the defensive line.  If they can generate pressure on McGloin, MSU will be able to drop linebackers into coverage and Penn State shouldn't do much in the passing game.  If they aren't successful, McGloin should be able to do very disturbing things to the secondary.  Tyler Hoover, Jerel Worthy, et al.: this is your time to shine.  Pressure McGloin and one or two poor interceptions are highly likely.

Offense and prediction, after the jump.

WHEN MICHIGAN STATE IS ON OFFENSE: The Lions are led by a few solid performers but are a pretty average unit as a whole.  Furthermore, the most outstanding performer, linebacker Michael Mauti, separated his shoulder against Ohio State, and missed last week's game.  He's listed as probable for Saturday, but Joe Paterno seemed significantly more guarded about the situation:

"I think after we watch him (Mauti) do some things, we'll have a better idea of how much he can do on Saturday, if anything at all," Paterno said.

Joe Rexrode talked to a PSU beat reporter, who offered this general take:

Penn State's defense lost its best LB and playmaker overall in Mike Mauti two weeks ago. If he plays, he'll be below par with shoulder and knee maladies. No single player on this defense must be accounted for unlike many past years where you had a Tamba Hali or Jay Alford or Paul Posluszny or Aaron Maybin. It's a bunch of pluggers. I don't think that cuts it against Michigan State.

Penn State has had very little success getting to the quarterback this season: they're averaging 1.45 sacks per game, which is only 94th best in the country.  Given Cousins' injury situation, it'll be key to hold PSU to around that average.  PSU has had issues with their defensive ends all year long, and the situation hasn't improved much.  However, the interior line is very strong, as Ollie Ogbu and Devon Still are talented and hugely experienced.

PSU's rush defense against BCS conference teams:

Alabama 34 180 1 5.3
Iowa 36 122 1 3,4
Illinois 54 282 0 5.2
Minnesota 35 134 0 3.8
Michigan 42 233 3 5.5
N'western 43 168 2 3.9
Ohio St. 43 314 1 7.3
Indiana 21 90 1 4.3


That's a whole lotta meh; not surprisingly, Penn State's rush defense is only 7th-best in the conference.  Given PSU's strength on the interior line, MSU is likely to struggle a bit running up the middle.  Look for Keshawn Martin to get a few carries from the slot and in end-arounds, and for Edwin Baker to do lots of running off-tackle.

Penn State's pass defense is 2nd in the conference, but that's mostly a function of opponents primarily running the ball rather than a particular defensive strength.  The pass efficiency defense is 7th in the conference and 73rd nationally.  Penn State's best pass defender, Nick Sukay, tore a pectoral muscle against Illinois, had surgery, and is out for the season.

Brian previewed the secondary before Michigan took on Penn State:

The PSU secondary is also thin and young after Sukay's injury. They've moved Drew Astorino to the free safety position and he sounds like a faster combination of Kovacs and Cam Gordon—small, iffy tackler, questionable angles. The differences are in speed and experience. He's returning starter who was honorable mention ABT last year and has returned some punts. The second guy may be freshman Malcolm Willis, who was forced into the lineup after third safety Andrew Dailey had some minor injury problems of his own. Willis tackled well and had more of an impact on the game than either of the starters.

The corners aren't much deeper. D'Anton Lynn is a league-average corner who Penn State fans are very much in favor of for the same reason Troy Woolfolk's injury caused the rending of garments in Ann Arbor. The other guy, Stephen Morris, came in for a beating after the Minnesota game for sloppy coverage and horrible tackling. There are rumors that Chaz Powell might leap into the starting lineup or at least see significant time. This would be risky, since Powell has taken the same "you're a corner, I mean WR, I mean corner, I mean WR, I mean corner" career path that James Rogers has.

Powell has ended up playing substantial time and has been fairly effective; he has 5 pass breakups.  Another key statistic: Penn State only has 9 interceptions on the season, which is 74th-best in the country.  Cousins has been interception-prone in the past few weeks, but PSU hasn't really shown the ability to take advantage of that profligacy.

Mark Dell and B.J. Cunningham were remarkably good in the second half against Purdue, but this really needs to be the Edwin Baker show.  Penn State has performed poorly against solid rushing attacks.  MSU started the year as an outstanding rushing team but has fallen back to the mean over the past few weeks.  Baker was good last week but didn't see much action in the second half because MSU was in comeback mode; here's hoping that State will be able to get Baker going (and Bell, and Caper, please!) early in the game.

FINAL PREDICTION: Man, I don't know.  Originally, I picked this as MSU's most difficult game.  Clearly, I overestimated PSU a bit, but that prediction was really predicated upon this game being Joe Paterno's last.  Paterno said earlier this week that he plans to return next year; while this may not be news after all, it nonetheless means that this game isn't going to be a "Win One For Joe!" farewell game.  I think MSU would have close to no chance under those circumstances.  What we have remaining is a deeply flawed but dangerous opponent, and a game played in a stadium where so many MSU teams' dreams have been buried.  Can this team rise above?  I'm incredibly nervous making the call, but I say yes.  34-24, Michigan State.