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Penn State will be an important bounce-back game for Michigan State

How Michigan State responds will define the Spartans’ season.

Syndication: Detroit Free Press Joshua A. Bickel / USA TODAY NETWORK

Last week, Michigan State lost in a 56-7 rout by Big Ten foe Ohio State, effectively eliminating the Spartans from Big Ten Conference title contention along with an invite to the College Football Playoff.

Still, Michigan State sits at 9-2 with a chance to finish head coach Mel Tucker’s second year at 10 wins (in the regular season). To get there, it won’t be easy; the Spartans will need to rebound nicely against a Penn State team that has been everything but consistent.

The Nittany Lions have had a rough year, beating Auburn, a fringe top-25 team entering the season, then everything collapsed.

Since beating both Wisconsin and Auburn to open the season, Penn State lost consecutive games to No. 3 Iowa, an unranked Illinois team in nine overtimes and No. 5 Ohio State. Penn State played a hard-fought game against Michigan, ultimately losing 21-17 at home, but now the Nittany Lions head to East Lansing with a chance to cap off what hasn’t been an easy season.

On the other side, Michigan State walked out of Spartan Stadium on Halloween Eve with the Paul Bunyan Trophy and an 8-0 record. In the last three weeks, the Spartans have lost games to both Purdue and Ohio State.

With a chance to end the season on a positive note, Tucker says there’s no room for pointing fingers or making excuses.

“We’ll turn on the film and we’ll see,” Tucker said following Ohio State. “It’s an evaluation. That’s the reality of it. You don’t try to go to like make it positive — there’s nothing positive about it. It just is what it is. So, what do we got to do? What we have to do is we have to go out there, we have to play and then what you do out there is going to say a lot about you as a player and us as a team. We’ll learn more about ourselves and that’s going to help us moving forward.”

The first issue at hand is defense. It will need to drastically improve. Against Ohio State, the Spartans surrendered 655 total yards. Nearly 500 of those yards were in the first half. That’s not to say the defense didn’t show some surprises either.

On Ohio State’s first drive, Michigan State’s bend-don’t-break strategy appeared to be working, somewhat. The Spartans made some key tackles in open space and were able to keep Ohio State from getting the big play. But that didn’t last very long as the Buckeyes eventually hit for a 23-yard touchdown pass to open the game.

Then, Ohio State started getting several big plays for touchdowns. By halftime, it was 49-0. Offensively, it wasn’t encouraging that Michigan State failed so often against what was thought to be an average Ohio State defense entering the game.

Saturday’s game against Penn State could come down to coaching, which MSU fans should trust Tucker. He was able to out-coach Jim Harbaugh to a 37-33 win over Michigan earlier this season. It was coaching, and some luck, that brought Michigan State here, to 9-2, with a chance at double-digit wins and a potential New Year’s Six bowl bid.

Penn State has not fired James Franklin, miraculously, and in fact, the university recently extended him. It was Franklin’s coaching miscues that led to a loss against Illinois in nine overtimes. It was coaching that ultimately led to a loss against Michigan earlier this month. It’s often coaching that has burned Penn State since Franklin took over.

The game will also be a mental one. It’s not easy to rebound after a humiliating loss like the one the Spartans just sustained. Tucker told players, “I don’t want to hear a word on the bus or on the plane.” He’s not opening any doors for excuses and is holding players accountable for the loss.

How Michigan State responds on Saturday will say a lot about who the Spartans are as a team, and as players. It will come down to defense, coaching and mental toughness. If the Spartans can stay mentally tough, the offense will perform. Can they do it? ESPN’s FPI says no, and a few experts are calling this one a coin flip. Fortunately, Michigan State has been surprising everyone all season.