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Michigan State Football Preview: Game Twelve — Penn State

The most painful season in recent memory comes to a merciful end with the battle for the Big Ten’s best trophy

Penn State v Rutgers Photo by Michael Reaves/Getty Images

Happy day after Thanksgiving! I hope you’re all as painfully full as I am. Misery loves company after all.

This time last year MSU was gearing up for a run to the Big Ten Championship and potential, the College Football Playoff. This year, yeah, not so much. That honor belongs to a couple other Big Ten teams, one of which is this week’s opponent, Penn State.

The Nittany Lions do need some help to get there. Should Ohio State win, Penn State would punch their ticket to the Big Ten Championship Game by virtue of their bonkers win over the Buckeyes earlier this season. But should the Buckeyes lose, Michigan will go to the B1GCG and I will cry for days and days and days.

With the OSU/UM kickoff coming beforehand, Penn State will know what there is left to play for. MSU will either have the chance to play spoiler or pounce a team that had their biggest dreams taken from them. Either way, it will take all they have to bring home the Land Grant Trophy.

How We’re Feeling.gif

Even through all the years of John L. Smith and Bobby Williams, I have never been excited for the end of a football season...until this year and I’m having trouble coping with it.

I feel guilty wishing away one of the best times of the year. Being excited that a team that has brought me and every other Spartan fan around the world so much joy over the past few years. But, man, it has been a long, torturous season.

This year has been Murphy’s Law incarnate. Between the poor coaching, lackluster execution and injuries to future building blocks, everything that can go wrong has. Sure the incremental improvement of the underclassmen has been refreshing but there you can only put so much lipstick on this pig.

Mercifully, it is almost over. Only this weekend’s game against Penn State remains. This is MSU’s de facto bowl game, providing the Spartans one last chance to head into the offseason on a high note with the best trophy in the Big Ten, nay, the NATION in tow.


Now if that doesn’t get you fired up... I totally understand. We’ve almost made it friends. Hang in there for one last weekend.

Michigan State Offense vs Penn State Defense

Ohio State v Michigan State Photo by Leon Halip/Getty Images

Notable Spartans

  • Leading Passer: QB Tyler O’Connor — 137-for-229 (59.8%) 1,852 yards, 16 TD/9 INT
  • Leading Rusher: RB LJ Scott — 168 carries, 935 yards, 6 TD
  • Leading Receiver: WR RJ Shelton — 48 catches, 715 yards, 5 TD

Notable Nittany Lions

  • Leading Tackler: S Marcus Allen — 83 tackles, 5.5 TFL
  • Leading Sack Artist: DE Garrett Sickels — 6.0 sacks, 11.5 TFL
  • Leading Ball Hawk: LB Brandon Smith — 2 INT

Despite all the gloom and doom, there have been some encouraging developments in the past few weeks, one of which is the play of the offensive line. The Spartan line more than held their own against both Michigan and Ohio State, and dominated Rutgers. Contrast that with every other game on the schedule save Notre Dame, and you have to be excited about the future.

Cole Chewins has been very solid at left tackle as was guard Tyler Higby before his injury. That will, in all likelihood, be the left side of the line for the next three seasons. Add in promising players like Dennis Finley and Thiyo Lukusa, and a holdover in Brian Allen, and the trenches should be much improved moving forward.

In the near term, this offense is (finally) all about LJ Scott. He is the most talented player on the offense and coordinator Dave Warner seems to have figured that out giving him 19+ carries in three of the last four games. The only one under 19? The loss to Illinois. You see the pattern.

Scott will face a Penn State defense which has improved significantly since linebackers Jason Cabinda and Brandon Bell have gotten healthy. The Nittany Lions were shredded by James Conner and De’Veon Smith earlier in the season, but that was without those two in the fold. Scott and the line will have to play up to their competition this week.

One of the reasons Scott has to shoulder the load is the continued lack of decent quarterback play. There’s an over 75% chance that the two signal caller’s set to play in this game — Tyler O’Connor and Damion Terry — will never start another game for Michigan State. O’Connor who, bless his heart, just isn’t very good is set to graduate, while Terry hasn’t shown enough for anyone to think he will be starting over Brian Lewerke next fall.

I commend O’Connor for sticking around, but I’d be lying if I said his departure was not a welcome sight. Terry on the other hand, should probably get most of the snaps in this one so MSU can at least get him ready to be the backup next year.

Two players Spartan Nation should be sad to see go are RJ Shelton and Josiah Price. Shelton and Price were so integral to the incredible run of late. They did all they could this year, but simply weren’t playing with a full deck. Hopefully the two have a chance to continue their playing careers in the NFL.

They’ll have to contend with a PSU secondary that surrenders fewer than 200 passing yards per game. The group is led by safety and leading tackler Marcus Allen. You may recognize Allen as the man who blocked the kick against Ohio State which was returned for the game winning touchdown. Corners John Reid (5’10” 191) and Grant Haley (5’9” 185) don’t bring a ton of size but play physical.

Penn State Offense vs Michigan State Defense

Iowa v Penn State Photo by Brett Carlsen/Getty Images

Notable Nittany Lions

  • Leading Passer: QB Trace McSorley — 167-for-304 (54.9%) 2,600 yards, 17 TD/5 INT
  • Leading Rusher: RB Saquon Barkley — 216 carries, 1,205 yards, 14 TD
  • Leading Receiver: WR Chris Godwin — 42 catches, 627 yards, 7 TD

Notable Spartans

  • Leading Tackler: LB Chris Frey — 90 tackles, 3.0 TFL
  • Leading Sack Artist: DT Raequan Williams — 2.0 sacks, 5 TFL
  • Leading Ball Hawk: CB Darian Hicks — 2 INT

Penn State has been bizarro-Sparty when it comes to quarterback. Like MSU, they lost a three-year starter in Christian Hackenberg, but completely unlike MSU their replacement, Trace McSorley, has actually been a step up. Must be nice!

McSorely doesn’t have the NFL arm like Hack did, but also doesn’t wilt in the face of pressure if his first read isn’t there. Also completely unlike Hack, he has the legs to scramble out of a collapsing pocket make a read-option play a viable threat.

A lot of the threat comes from the fact that he has one of the best running backs in the nation as a decoy. That would be Saquon Barkley, who you may remember being the only one to do much in last year’s matchup. Barkley has 14 rushing TD’s and two through the air, so calling him a one-dimensional player would be incorrect. If MSU can slow him down, it will go a long ways towards a win.

Their big aerial weapon is Chris Godwin, who has reeled in over 40 catches and seven TD’s so far. At 6’1” 205, he isn’t huge but plays very physically. Tight End Mike Gesicki also has 42 catches and is a great safety blanket for McSorely.

The biggest thing about Penn State is how often they hit on big plays. Seven receivers have a catch of at least 43 yards on the season and Barkley has an 81-yard rushing TD to his name, as well. Limit the big plays, limit their offense. Easier said than done for a Spartan D that has not done a great job of that this year.

Like the offensive line, their counterparts on defense have improved significantly over the past few weeks. This shouldn’t come as a huge shock since the underclassmen have been commanding so much playing time the second half of the year, but what is surprising is that they’ve done it without Malik McDowell for the past two weeks.

They’ll be without him again in Happy Valley but if Mike Panasiuk, Raequan Willaims, Auston Robertson and Robert Bowers play like they did a week ago, MSU should be at least OK. This is the group that should have fans the most excited about future success. All of those players are underclassmen and that list doesn’t include Josh King or Naquan Jones, a four-star recruit who is redshirting. Improving in this area will do a world of good for the linebackers and secondary.

Speaking of linebackers, this is Riley Bullough’s last game. He may not have presided over a group as dominant as his brother Max did, but will be remembered as a great leader and warrior. He and counterpart Chris Frey will have their hands full being asked to slow down Barkley this week.

In the secondary, true freshman Justin Layne has taken the mantle as starter and looks like a future star. He has the size, long arms and speed Dantonio loves in corners and has noticeably improved since moving from wideout. Again, he will have his hands full with Godwin, but the future here is bright.

Special Teams

NCAA Football: Iowa at Penn State Rich Barnes-USA TODAY Sports

Somehow, Michael Geiger is once again good. In his last six games, Geiger is 9-for-10 in field goal attempts including 3-for-3 beyond 40 yards. In a year where nothing has made sense, it is all too fitting.

Jake Hartbarger continues to have an amazing season. Unfortunately, a punter having an amazing season isn’t usually a good sign. The return game is irrelevant as ever. The coverages are fine. I really really hope to spend next season writing better things in this section.

As for Penn State, they don’t do much. That unicorn pictured above is Joey Julius who is known to lay out a kick returner from time to time. Their real kicker, Tyler Davis, is 20-for-22 on the year and 3-for-3 from beyond 40. No return scores of note.

Bottom Line and Prediction

NCAA Football: Ohio State at Michigan State Mike Carter-USA TODAY Sports

Like this column, the season is finally almost over and as excited as we all are to move on, take a second to remember this feeling. Embrace the futility. Let all the frustration and anger soak in. Take every bad break and stupid play and let them simmer in your memory.

Why? Because this is what makes the good times so damn good. Without pain, it’s impossible to know what jubilation feels like.

Without going through John L and Bobby, we wouldn’t be able to appreciate Mark.

Without losing to programs like Ohio State and Michigan all those years, taking them down so frequently wouldn’t be nearly as sweet.

Without the Alamo and Buffalo Wild Wings Bowl’s — trips we would all gladly take right now — the Rose and Cotton Bowls wouldn’t have been borderline religious experiences.

Without losing to Wisconsin in the Big Ten Championship game, beating Ohio State and Iowa — to reach the College Football Playoff, no less — on the same stage wouldn’t have meant as much.

Without heartbreakers at the hands of Marvin McNutt and Braylon Edwards, plays like the ones made by Jalen Watts-Jackson, LJ Scott and Michael Geiger wouldn’t have brought you (me) to tears. Ok, they would have but still.

The point is that it takes bad times to truly appreciate the good ones. Hopefully this program will be having more of the latter again before too long. In Mark we trust.

MSU battles, but PSU simply has too much to play for and shines in their big moment.

PSU 24 MSU 17