The conclusion of the 2021 regular season is (somehow already) here, and the No. 12 Michigan State Spartans (9-2) return home to Spartan Stadium to take on the Penn State Nittany Lions (7-4) on senior day. Kickoff is set for 3:30 p.m. Eastern Time and the game will broadcast on ABC. A victory for Michigan State would mean a 10-win season, likely New Year’s Six bowl bid and the Land Grant Trophy returning to East Lansing.
To help us learn more about the Nittany Lions, we spoke to Patrick Koerbler of Black Shoe Diaries — SB Nation’s website for all things Penn State.
Are Penn State fans happy with James Franklin’s extension? What makes the defense so dominant? Can the Spartans stop the Nittany Lions’ passing game? Patrick discusses these questions and more.
1. James Franklin just signed a massive 10-year, $75 million contract extension. Franklin has been a good recruiter and had some success on the field, but not an overwhelming amount from a national perspective. Do you believe Franklin is the right coach for the future of the program, and what does the consensus from the Penn State fan base seem to be regarding the extension (supportive or not supportive of the deal)?
Patrick: That’s a tough question to answer because I don’t know that there really is a consensus. To be honest, I think there’s a lot of indifference toward Franklin right now. I think the majority of rational fans are OK with him being back, but we wouldn’t exactly have been devastated if he left either. I know for myself with the extension, I’m more happy that the Penn State administration is making a commitment to the football program beyond the head coach — things like increasing the assistant coach salary pool (see: analysts), improving facilities, and laying the groundwork for better student-athlete housing. It’s only gotten media attention somewhat recently, but Penn State really let itself get behind in the arms race in college football. With this extension, it appears that they are back on the right track.
So to answer your question: is Franklin the right coach for the future of the program? In certain ways, yes, because I think he’s playing a big part in getting Penn State where it needs to be off the field as far as university and booster buy-in goes. But with these last two seasons being what they were/are, I do have serious doubts if he will be the one who can get the Nittany Lions over the College Football Playoff hump.
2. Defensively, Penn State ranks No. 4 in the nation in terms of points allowed per game at 15.5. The Nittany Lions also rank 27th in total defense, 29th against the pass and 34th against the run. What has made the unit so successful this season, and what is the best way for a short-handed Michigan State offense — likely without wide receiver Jayden Reed and others this week — to attack the Penn State defense?
Patrick: I know this is a “captain obvious” answer, but Penn State just has a lot of really talented players at every level. NFL Draft projections can be a bit wonky this time of year, but there’s a world where three Penn State players from each level of the defense — safety Jaquan Brisker, linebacker Brandon Smith and defensive end Arnold Ebiketie — all go in the first round in April’s draft.
As far as what Michigan State can do, I think their best course of action is still to try to run the ball between the tackles, with the hopes of eventually hitting some big plays off of play action. Penn State has been without their star one-technique defensive tackle PJ Mustipher since the first quarter of the Iowa game (yes, he got booed!), and while the defensive tackles have stepped up in his absence, they are still a bit unproven. But really, though, it’s less about the defensive tackles being poor and more about how good this defense is moving sideline-to-sideline. The defensive ends (Ebiketie and Jesseu Luketa), outside linebackers (Smith and Curtis Jacobs) and safeties (Brisker and Ji’Ayir Brown) are some of the fastest units Penn State has had in a very long time.
3. Offensively, the Nittany Lions struggle to run the ball at just 110.5 yards per game (116th in FBS), but have a strong passing attack that ranks 25th in the nation at 270.9 yards per game. Meanwhile, Michigan State has statistically the worst passing defense in the country, giving up an absurd 339.3 yards per game. With Sean Clifford expected back this week, and Jahan Dotson at wide receiver, do you see any possible way MSU can slow down this passing attack? What is the best way to stop it?
Patrick: The fortunate thing for Michigan State is that you never know what Sean Clifford you are going to get. He looked fantastic against Auburn, and played really well against Ohio State, but then will have games against poorer defenses (like Illinois and Maryland) where he misses tons of throws. Perhaps the inconsistency this season is injury-related dating back to the hit he took in the Iowa game, but this has also been the story of Clifford’s career — good mixed with bad.
From my vantage point, the best way to stop Clifford is to bring pressure from all different spots on the field. He really struggles with just stepping up in the pocket. Instead, he’ll flush himself out of the pocket, cutting off half the field and having to make a throw on the run. So it isn’t even so much blitzing five or six players, but rather just having the pass rush come from different areas to give him different looks.
4. Is there one under-the-radar player on offense and one under-the-radar on defense for Penn State who Michigan State fans should watch out for on Saturday?
Patrick: For the offense, I think tight end Theo Johnson is a good pick here. At 6-foot-6, 253 pounds, he was a highly-touted prospect coming out of high school, and he’s just starting to put things together. Through the first seven games, he had just six receptions. Meanwhile, over the last four games, he’s put up 13 receptions, so his role within the offense is clearly growing. I think if Penn State was smart, the Nittany Lions continue to get him the ball more.
Defensively, I’ll go with defensive tackle Coziah Izzard. He’s been pushed into more playing time because of Mustipher’s injury, but he’s really answered the bell. He’s a bit small at 6-foot-3 and just 295 pounds, but he’s by far the most nimble of the interior linemen and has flashed that quickness a few times the last month or so. I don’t know if Michigan State is the right matchup, but it feels like he has a two-plus tackles for loss game in him.
5. Obviously, this is a rivalry game with the Land Grant Trophy on the line. How big of a rival do Penn State fans view Michigan State (high, low or somewhere in between)? Also, is the Land Grant the ugliest trophy in sports?
Patrick: Tough question given Penn State’s lack of “rivals.” I mean, you could ask 10 Penn State fans for Penn State’s three main rivals, and you very well could get 10 different answers. I could realistically see any of these teams making a top-three: Pittsburgh, West Virginia, Notre Dame, Rutgers, Maryland, Ohio State, Michigan, Michigan State, Wisconsin and Iowa. Maybe even Nebraska tossed in there.
I think the consensus would be (in whatever order) Pitt, Ohio State and Michigan, but Michigan State would be in that next tier, so somewhere in the middle makes the most sense.
And yes, the Land Grant Trophy is the ugliest trophy in sports — but also the most beautiful. Only college football fans get what I’m saying.
Bonus: Score prediction?
Patrick: It still seems like the Penn State roster is battling the flu, which kept around 20-30 players out last weekend, so it’s difficult to feel confident in any prediction given we don’t know exactly *who* will be playing on either side. I’ll be a dumb idiot homer and go with Penn State 17-13 because the thing I’m most confident in is Penn State’s defense, but again, I couldn’t be less confident about this prediction.
A big thank you to Patrick for providing his thoughts and insights into the Nittany Lions. To stay up to date Penn State news, be sure to follow Black Shoe Diaries as well.