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

Penn State v Michigan State Photo by Duane Burleson/Getty Images

Well, in what could only be described as the strangest college football of all-time, or at least in our lifetimes, the Big Ten regular season has reached its final week. At least for this year, the tradition of the Michigan State Spartans playing the Penn State Nittany Lions for the Land Grant Trophy in the final week of the season has returned. That trophy is not particularly aesthetically-pleasing, but Michigan State head coach Mel Tucker surely wants it back in the trophy case.

Penn State has had a disappointing season, beginning the year with an 0-5 record, but has since won two games in a row. Michigan State has been an inconsistent football team with a 2-4 record, both wins were over top-15 opponents at the time. The Nittany Lions are probably a better team than their record shows, and probably have more talent than the Spartans, but Penn State enters Saturday’s contest as more than a two-touchdown favorite over Michigan State, and I quite frankly find that to be a little bit much. I suppose we will soon find out if that is the case or not.

The game was originally slated for 3:30 p.m. (EST) on ESPN, but has since been moved to noon on ABC.

Here is the game preview:

Tale of the Tape

Michigan State:
2020 Record — 2-4 (2-4 in Big Ten)

Offense (per game averages) — 319.7 total yards, 224.50 passing yards, 95.2 rushing yards

Defense (per game averages) — 395.3 total yards allowed, 231.67 passing yards allowed, 163.7 rushing yards allowed

Cumulative Points Scored: 102 (17.0 ppg)

Cumulative Points Allowed: 207 (34.5 ppg)

Current SP+ Ranking: 81st

Penn State:
2020 Record — 2-5 (2-5 in Big Ten)

Offense (per game averages) — 412.6 total yards, 241.57 passing yards, 171.0 rushing yards

Defense (per game averages) — 327.4 yards allowed, 191.71 passing yards allowed, 135.7 rushing yards allowed

Cumulative Points Scored: 173 (24.71 ppg)

Cumulative Points Allowed: 204 (29.14 ppg)

Current SP+ Ranking: 22nd

Series History/All-Time Records

All-time head-to-head record: Michigan State leads 17-16-1
Current streak: Penn State with one victory
Last Michigan State Win: Oct. 26, 2019 (28-7)
Last Penn State Win: Oct. 13, 2018 (21-17)
Michigan State all-time record: 710-469-44 (.599)
Penn State all-time record: 900-398-42 (.687)

Previous Game Results:

Ohio State 52, Michigan State 12

This game was brutal. Ohio State absolutely dominated Michigan State from the opening whistle. Justin Fields did whatever he wanted, catching bad snap after bad snap and torching the Spartans with his legs (13 carries for 104 yards and two scores) and having an efficient outing passing the football (17 for 24 for 199 yards and two more touchdowns). Trey Sermon also had his way on the ground with 112 rushing yards and touchdown, while Chris Olave clowned on the MSU secondary with 139 receiving yards and a touchdown. Rocky Lomabrdi had another rough outing, completing just five of 11 passes for 33 yards and an interception before being forced out of the game with an apparent head injury. Payton Thorne came in for Lombardi and moved the ball a little bit better, scoring the Spartans’ lone touchdown, but he had two turnovers himself. Michigan State needs to bounce back in a big way against Penn State, because even though it was a powerhouse Ohio State team, this performance was pitiful. Mel Tucker will have his guys much more prepared this weekend.

Penn State 23, Rutgers 7

After going winless in its first five games, Penn State has started to put it together recently with two-straight wins over Michigan and Rutgers. Neither win looks particularly impressive at this point in the season, but the Nittany Lions are starting to win the games they’re supposed to win — and they’re “expected” to win Saturday’s game against Michigan State. As for last week’s game, Penn State controlled the clock and the game. The Lions had a strong rushing attack with 248 yards on the ground. True freshman running back Keyvone Lee led the way with 95 yards on 17 carries (5.6 yards per carry), while quarterbacks Will Levis and Sean Clifford combined for 86 rushing yards, and running back Devyn Ford added 65 yards and a touchdown. Clifford only threw it 22 times for 133 yards with a touchdown and an interception. Penn State clearly wants to run the football, and will try to do so against the Spartans. The win over Rutgers was Penn State’s 900th all-time win — one of only eight programs to accomplish that feat.

Key Matchups

Sean Clifford versus the Michigan State secondary: As mentioned, Penn State wants to run the football. Clifford has not had a great season, completing 58.9 percent of his passes for 1,366 yards with just 12 touchdown passes and nine interceptions (he also has two rushing touchdowns). The Spartans need to shut down the run and force Clifford to beat them through the air. Shakur Brown is tied for first in the nation with five interceptions and could make life miserable for Clifford. Brown, Kalon Gervin, Chris Jackson, and Angelo Grose will have to worry about receivers Jahan Dotson (38 catches for 587 yards and six touchdowns) and Parker Washington (31 catches for 378 yards and four touchdowns), among others, but this is a matchup the Michigan State secondary could surely win.

The ground attack: To hammer this point home, Penn State has found an identity as of late running the football — rushing for 502 yards combined in the past two games (both wins). As mentioned above, if Michigan State wants a shot to win this game, it has to take away the run game by limiting Keyvone Lee, Devyn Ford and even Will Levis. If MSU makes PSU one-dimensional and puts pressure on Clifford to win the game, things will bode well. If the Lions are getting big chunk gains and thrashing the Spartans on the ground like the Buckeyes did, it will open things for Clifford in the passing game and the Spartans will be in for another long day. Offensively, Michigan State must mimic the success it had on the ground against Northwestern because on the same line of thing, if the Lions force Lombardi or Thorne to beat them single-handily, they’ll set themselves up well for a victory.

Michigan State wide receivers versus Penn State Secondary: Jayden Reed, Jalen Nailor and company will battle with redshirt freshman Joey Porter Jr. (son of former NFL linebacker Joey Porter Sr.) and it sounds as if Penn State may get senior cornerback Tariq Castro-Fields back this weekend as well. Penn State has been strong against the pass this season, allowing just 191.7 yards per game, and 6.5 yards per attempt — both rank in the top-23 nationally. Outside of a few deep balls that hit every now and again, the Spartans have struggled to move the ball consistently through the air (or on the ground for that matter). We still don’t know who will line up behind center, Thorne or Lombardi, but whichever quarterback is at the helm must play smarter, take care of the ball and sustain drives. We’ve seen Nailor and Reed’s ability to stretch a defense, and that will be key in this game, but the short and intermediate passing game needs to improve as well. Those two are playmakers — get them the ball.

Game Info

Time: Noon (Eastern)
TV Channel: ABC
Location: Beaver Stadium, University Park, Pennsylvania
Weather expectations: Cloudy, with a high of 50 degrees, light winds blowing south/southeast at four to five miles per hour
Line: Penn State -14.5


Call me crazy, but I have a good feeling about this game, much like I did with the Northwestern game. Penn State has certainly underachieved this year, and are probably a more talented team than the 2-5 record shows, but Michigan State has often defeated seemingly more-talented Penn State teams. Oh, and the moment MSU fans have been waiting for a long time is here, as the Spartans break out the Gruff Sparty uniforms. We don’t quite know yet if the Spartans will play well on Saturday, but we do know they’ll look good. Perhaps it will provide a sense of energy.

Obviously, it’s not going to be easy. Penn State is looking to finish the regular season on a strong note with three wins in a row. It’s going to take Michigan-game or Northwestern-game type focus for Michigan State to pull this off, which means winning the turnover battle, winning the field position battle, taking advantage of big play opportunities when possible, stopping Penn State’s running game, running the ball more efficiently on offense, and better play from the quarterback position — no matter who plays there. But with the Land Grant Trophy on the line, and a lot to prove, I expect the Spartans to come out with a lot of energy and motivation.

For a closer look at Penn State, check out our “Get to Know the Opponent” piece.


Who wins the Land Grant Trophy?

This poll is closed

  • 55%
    Michigan State
    (27 votes)
  • 44%
    Penn State
    (22 votes)
49 votes total Vote Now