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Game Preview: Penn State Nittany Lions vs. Michigan State Spartans

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: OCT 13 Michigan State at Penn State Photo by Gregory Fisher/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

So, here we are. Two straight blowout losses and a bye week have passed since the last time the Michigan State Spartans won a football game. The road doesn’t get any easier this week, as the undefeated and No. 6 Penn State Nittany Lions invade East Lansing. And, of course, the Land-Grant Trophy is on the line!

MSU has had some recent success against Penn State, winning two years in a row as an underdog. They’ve been the thorn in the side of PSU and head coach James Franklin. But this is a brand new year and Penn State looks like a strong team right now.

Let’s break it down:

Tale of the Tape

Michigan State:
2019 Record — 4-3 (2-2 Big Ten)

Offense (per game average) — 357.4 total yards, 240.29 passing yards, 117.1 rushing yards

Defense (per game average) — 314.3 total yards allowed, 196.57 passing yards allowed, 117.7 rushing yards allowed

Cumulative Points Scored: 167 (23.86 ppg)

Cumulative Points Allowed: 141 (21.0 ppg)

Current S&P+ Ranking: 28th

Penn State:
2019 Record — 7-0 (4-0 Big Ten)

Offense (per game average) — 439.3 total yards, 261.0 passing yards, 178.3 rushing yards

Defense (per game average)— 282.2 yards allowed, 215.86 passing yards allowed, 66.3 rushing yards allowed

Cumulative Points Scored: 280 (40.0 ppg)

Cumulative Points Allowed: 70 (10 ppg)

Current S&P+ Ranking: 8th

Series History/All-Time Records

All-time head-to-head record: Michigan State leads 17-15
Current streak: Michigan State with two straight win
Last Michigan State Win: Oct. 13, 2018 (21-17)
Last Penn State Win: Nov. 26, 2016 (45-12)
Michigan State all-time record: 705-462-44 (.600)
Penn State all-time record: 894-391-42 (.690)

Previous Game Results

Wisconsin 38, Michigan State 0

Yikes. The Spartans simply could not get anything going offensively. Brian Lewerke struggled mightily, completing just seven of 16 pass attempts for 53 yards. He also threw a pick-six. The running game wasn’t any better, as Elijah Collins ran for just 16 yards on eight attempts and the collective team mustered a mere 30 yards on the ground. The Badgers held the Spartans to just 149 total yards and seven first downs. The one thing MSU did well was stopping All-World running back Jonathan Taylor. Taylor had just 80 yards on 26 attempts (3.1 yards yards per carry). His total yardage and YPC were both season lows. But quarterback Jack Coan tore the Spartans up, completing about 86 percent of his throws with a touchdown pass and zero interceptions.

We also all thought Wisconsin was a super team with convincing win after convincing win, but followed this performance against MSU up with a one-point loss at...Illinois. College football is strange. Anyway...on to Penn State.

Penn State 28, Michigan 21

After racing out to a 21-0 lead in the first half, Penn State very nearly blew it, but held on for the win. Michigan scored 14 unanswered points, then the Lions scored again to make it 28-14. The Wolverines then scored with just under nine minutes left on the clock. The Michigan defense then forced a punt and drove all the way down, but failed to convert on fourth-and-goal on a dropped pass and PSU got the win. U of M had zero answers for wide receiver KJ Hamler, who made play after play, with six catches for 108 yards and two scores. Penn State was challenged, but remained perfect, both in conference play and on the season overall.

Penn State isn’t going to take this weekend’s contest lightly after being upset by MSU in two consecutive seasons:

Key Matchups

KJ Hamler versus Josiah Scott/MSU secondary: Franklin and the Penn State coaching staff wants to get the ball into the hands of Hamler — a Michigan native — as often as possible. Hamler may line up all over the field, and whether it’s Scott or another MSU defensive back on him, the MSU defense needs to be aware of where he is at at all times. The 5-foot-9-inch 176-pound receiver is a nightmare in the open field, and his seven receiving touchdowns are tied for sixth in the nation. He’s also a dangerous kick/punt returner. The MSU pass defense ranks a respectable 35th in the country, while the Penn State passing offense (as a whole) ranks 44th in the nation.

Elijah Collins/MSU offensive line versus Penn State run defense: The Penn State defense is giving up just 66 yards per contest (fourth in the NCAA), while the MSU offense is only netting 117.1 yards on the ground per game (110th in NCAA). Collins has struggled somewhat, as he has not gained more than 76 yards in a single game since exploding for 192 yards against Western Michigan in Week 2. That is not all on him, though, as MSU’s offensive line continues to struggle with injuries and consistency, and Collins is still averaging five yards per carry. The offense will need to get going on the ground if the Spartans want to win, but that’s a tall order against the PSU front seven.

Brian Lewerke versus Penn State secondary: We’ve already talked about Lewerke’s struggles last week, so he needs a nice rebound performance, and will need to be more efficient if he wants to lead his team to a victory. The Penn State defense ranks toward the middle of the pack against the pass defense (59th in the country), giving up about 216 yards per game. Lewerke is averaging about 228 passing yards per game, so this should be a nice little chess match throughout the game. It will be interesting to see if offensive coordinator Brad Salem can scheme some new, creative ways to move the ball downfield, because this offense needs to be rejuvenated.

Game Info

Time: 3:30 p.m. (EST)
TV Channel: ABC
Location: Spartan Stadium, East Lansing
Weather expectations: High of 54 degrees, cloudy/rainy, 50 percent chance of rain, winds blowing east/southeast at 11 miles per hour
Line: Penn State -5.5


Quite honestly, I don’t know how this game is going to go. On paper, and based on what we’ve seen on the field these past two weeks, MSU shouldn’t win this game and it may not even be competitive. However, the Spartans have owned the Nittany Lions in the past couple of seasons, and those were also games where it didn’t seem like MSU stood a chance on paper. So, crazier things have happened.

We didn’t mention Sean Clifford in the key matchups section, but let’s discuss. Clifford is a talented, dual-threat quarterback, who is quite similar to former PSU quarterback Trace McSorely. The Spartans did a good job of forcing McSorely into mistakes or limiting his impact in each of the past two meetings — he threw three picks in 2017 and was held to 192 passing yards and 37 rushing yards in 2018. Clifford, of course can pose problems for the MSU defense, especially if he’s able to get the ball to Hamler, but if the unit is able to limit his impact in the manner that it did against McSorely, the team will be in position to win.

Offensively, as mentioned above, both Lewerke and Collins need to be effective. The unit cannot be one-dimensional if it wants to find success. Hopefully the Spartans were able to use the bye week to get healthy up front, iron out some of the offensive issues and gain a little bit of confidence heading its third-straight matchup with a top-10 opponent. Penn State, on the other hand, may be primed for a letdown after two straight emotional wins under the lights. We will find out on how it all plays out on Saturday afternoon.

For more on Penn State, check out our “Get to Know the Opponent” piece.

How are we feeling, Spartans Nation?


Which school takes home the Land-Grant Trophy?

This poll is closed

  • 38%
    Michigan State
    (29 votes)
  • 61%
    Penn State
    (47 votes)
76 votes total Vote Now