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Michigan State Spartans Football Preview: Penn State

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The Spartans are one win away from Indianapolis. Can they take down Penn State and punch their ticket to the Big Ten Championship Game?

Matthew O'Haren-USA TODAY Sports

Happy post-thanksgiving everyone! I hope you are all enjoying your tryptophan hangovers as much as I am. I write to you today from Colorado, where the beer flows like wine and the women instinctively flock like the salmon of Capistrano but just because I'm on Mountain Time doesn't mean we can't talk Spartan Football. The preview must go on.

This years battle for the Land Grant Trophy is a doozy. After last weeks incredible win at Ohio State, the Spartans can punch their ticket to the Big Ten Championship with a win on Senior Day against Penn State.

There are some concerns, starting with the status of Connor Cook's right shoulder. There's also the ever-looming post-emotional-win "trap" game factor. Normally, Mark Dantonio teams do not fall victim to the trap game but if they don't have their Senior leader under center, it's fair to question how Tyler O'Connor (aka T'OC aka #TheApostrophe) and Damion Terry will handle the situation.

This is a senior laden team that surely does not want to have their last game in Spartan Stadium end in defeat. Guys like Jack Allen, Aaron Burbridge, Darien Harris, Shilique Calhoun and Lawrence Thomas will do their best to make sure the Big Ten season goes on for one more game.

Let's dig in...

When Penn State Has The Ball

Passing Game

As strange as it may sound, Christian Hackenberg is almost definitely the best quarterback in Penn State history. He is already the school's all-time career leader in passing yardage and touchdowns despite never cracking 3,000 yards or 20+ touchdowns in a single season.

He has never had a great offensive line in front of him or an overwhelming plethora of weapons in his arsenal (although Allen Robinson was pretty good). Yet there he is at the top of the charts. Considering he came to Happy Valley right after the JoePa sanctions and then had Bill O'Brien leave after his freshman year, that is pretty impressive.

The popular sentiment is that this will be Hack's last collegiate season and when you see him rip off a deep out or throw across his body to the opposite sideline, it's easy to understand why. He has enough arm to feed a family (oh god, stomach pains. Too...much...stuffing) and given how few good quarterbacks there are currently in the NFL, he should come off the board in timely fashion.

This is going to seem like an insult but I swear it isn't: of all the current NFL quarterbacks, the one he resembles the most (to me at least) is Jay Cutler. Anyone who has watched the two can attest to the similarities. Like Cutler, he has a cannon arm and an unshakable faith that he can make every throw. Relying on that velocity can frequently get him into (and out of) trouble but he remarkably only has three interceptions on the season, a sign of much needed maturation. Add in the fact that he had 15 picks last season and lost his best offensive lineman, Donovan Smith, to the NFL and his pedestrian numbers carry a bit more weight.
One concern is his completion percentage which checks in at only 52.9% and has dropped in each of his three seasons. He can sling it, but there are a few passes every game where the defense will have a chance to create a turnover. The Spartans will look to capitalize on those opportunities.

Hack utilizes two weapons on the outside, Chris Godwin and DaeSean Hamilton, almost exclusively. Those two have 52 and 32 catches, respectively, and account for more than half of Hack's touchdown throws as well. After that duo there are four guys with 12 or 13 catches and between 122 and 149 yards each. If it isn't going to Godwin or Hamilton, it's usually a checkdown to a back or tight end.

The defensive backs for MSU have been playing much better since the Nebraska debacle, thanks largely to a return to functionality from Montae Nicholson and health of Darian Hicks. The later of the two has allowed the Spartans to roll out their best back four since early in the year, with Arjen Colquhoun manning the corner spot across from Hicks and Demetrious Cox moving back to safety. Nicholson has reemerged as an impact player thanks to angles and anticipation that have improved ten-fold night since early this season. Limiting Hackenberg's downfield options with sound coverage will be crucial.

Beyond coverage, MSU can force Penn St to dink and dunk by getting pressure with their front seven. After last weeks masterpiece Calhoun, Thomas, Malik McDowell and the rest of the rotation are playing at the top of their game.

While this is a very different attack than OSU's, the offensive line is not nearly as good. In fact, it's been so porous Hackenberg has earned the nickname "Sackenberg" in some corners of the internet. Not a great omen.

If MSU can get pressure and force checkdowns, they will be in good shape.

Running Game

While a lot can be said about Hackenberg, the Nittany Lions are actually a pretty balanced team. The running attack is led by Saquon Barkley, a true freshman who beat out junior Akeel Lynch for the main gig. Barkley doesn't possess a huge frame or elite speed, but plays well beyond his years.

He has racked up 904 yards on the ground despite essentially playing in only three games (he missed two in the middle of the year and his debut was a one carry one yard day against Temple). Barkley has also become more involved in the passing game of late, with 11 catches in his last three games, but mostly does his damage on the ground.

After Barkley, the well is pretty dry. Lynch has less than 300 yards rushing and no other players are of note. Hackenberg is also not much of a runner.

MSU needs to play attacking football like they did a week ago. Riley Bullough, Jon Reschke and Harris all played fast and assertive against OSU's read option attack. It's fair to expect a lot of pressure again in this one, specifically trying to eliminate Barkley. It's tempting fate by putting the game on Hackenberg's electric arm, but given his erratic past and cheesecloth offensive line: the more pressure, the better.

When Michigan State Has The Ball

Passing Game

Lets take a quick moment to tip our hats to Dave Warner and Jim Bollman. I have been critical of Warner in the past but last week his gameplan was perfect. The entire staff did a great job keeping Connor Cook's non-availability hush hush while essentially creating an entirely new offense in the meantime. If you expected MSU to become an option team for a week, let's talk. I'd love to know what next weeks lottery numbers are.

Once again, we do not know who will be under center for the Spartans. We would all love for it to be Cook, but I wouldn't bet on it. At the very least, I hope he can take a snap and get the standing ovation he has earned on his Senior Day. He's the best quarterback to ever don the green and white and deserves one last deafening roar from the Spartan Stadium crowd.

If it's T'OC again, I expect a gameplan similar to last week's first quarter. The option attack has now been seen and Penn State will presumably be ready for it, but mix in a little more passing and things get complicated for the defense. You won't see the huge down the field plays you're accustomed to, but a balanced and relatively conservative offense that spreads the ball to Burbridge, Macgarrett Kings and R.J. Shelton should be enough to keep a very good defense on it's heels.

The Penn State defense is led by an elite front four, featuring the nation's leading sack artist, end Carl Nassib and former MSU recruit Anthony Zettel. The 6'7" Nassib has gotten to opposing quarterbacks 16 times but will face his toughest test in Jack Conklin, who had a phenomenal game last week against a powerful Buckeye unit. Zettel, tackle Austin Johnson and linebacker Brandon Bell each also have 10+ tackles for loss, so you could say they get decent pressure.

If MSU does opt to throw the ball more than a week ago, keeping Nassib and his pals at bay will be essential.

Running Game

Last week was a bit of a renaissance for this unit. It's not that the running game hadn't been doing enough to get by, we had just yet to see a game carried by the running backs. Pun intended. ZING. With driving rain and no real passing to speak of, the rushers simply took over, moving the ball four and five yards at a time, allowing MSU to control the clock and take down the Buckeyes.

No offense to Nick Hill, but the last few seasons, Jeremy Langford has gotten us Spartan Fans accustomed to having one workhorse back. With the way both Gerald Holmes and L.J. Scott ran last week, it might be time for us (me) to embrace a true running back rotation.

#TeamHolmes gained some serious momentum in the first half with Gerald showing off how much he hates getting tackled. In the second half it was L.J. Scott doing most of the work, exploiting a tired Buckeye front seven with his fresh legs down the stretch. The combination of these two will be a load for opposing defenses from here on out. Both possess power, strength and speed and when given the time to rest, form a dynamic tag team. Expect to see a lot of each of them this weekend.

T'OC and Terry each deserve a shout out as well. Both ran the ball effectively at times and fought for some tough yards. I wouldn't expect as much running from them this week, unless the conditions are as bad as they were in The Shoe. However, having that ability in their arsenal and those running backs behind them should set up nicely for some play action shots down the field.

Leading Nittany Lion tackler Jason Cabinda will have his hands full trying to keep the Spartans runners from picking up extra yardage throughout the day.

Special Teams

Talk about Jekyll and Hyde, eh? One minute you have eventual hero Michael Geiger shanking a makable kick and Kings muffing what looked to be a back-breaking punt, the next it's Geiger windmilling his way down the field after nailing a game-winning 41-yarder.

That is pretty much the season in a nutshell, is it not?

Geiger and Hartbarger each played well and the coverage units basically rendered OSU's talented returners useless. The third phase of the game no longer looks like a complete liability which is enormous moving forward.

The Lions have yet to bust out a return touchdown but they do have three returners with run backs of 57 or 58 yards, so the coverage units are key. They do, however, feature your favorite kicker: 259-pound Joey Julius. The freshman hit 10-of-12 this year before being tragically benched for Tyler Davis, who is 6-for-6 six since upsetting the entire nation and taking over the starting job. Davis was 3-for-3 last week against Michigan so keeping Penn St out of field goal range would be a nice touch.

Bottom Line and Prediction

This one could be boring. MSU has a huge advantage with their defensive line and Penn St has a top 20 scoring defense. It's hard to say exactly what the Spartans offensive gameplan will be, but if it features as much running as it did last week, the scoreboard might get some rest. Then again, the Spartans did just dominate the trenches against the #2 scoring defense in the nation so...yeah. Helpful, I know.

Defensively for MSU, the key is turning Hackenberg into a checkdown quarterback. He has the ability to pick opponents apart through the air but lacks the line to give him time to do it. Get him hearing footsteps early and you've put PSU at a big disadvantage. They're going to run the ball as well, so containing the explosive Barkley will be big.

Offensively, I doubt Cook plays. Ultimately, the prospect of getting him fully healthy for a possible Big Ten Championship game outweighs the risk of potentially aggravating the injury by playing this weekend at less than 100%. Considering the Penn State defense lives in opposing backfields, this seems like the route Dantonio will choose to take. It isn't ideal but after what happened last week, the game appears to be in capable hands with T'OC and Terry.

The Spartans open the offense up a bit for the backup quarterbacks, but remain ground-centric while the defense forces Hackenberg into a couple mistakes with pressure. Dantonio's team makes it to their third Big Ten Championship game in five years with a College Football Playoff berth on the line.

MSU 27-14