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Game Preview: Penn State Nittany Lions versus Michigan State Spartans

NCAA Football: Michigan State at Penn State Matthew OHaren-USA TODAY Sports

In what has been a surprising season for a Michigan State team picked to finish dead last in the Big Ten East during the preseason, the No. 12 Spartans sit at 9-2 overall and play host to the Penn State Nittany Lions (7-4) on Saturday, with kickoff set for 3:36 p.m. Eastern Time on ABC. Michigan State still has a lot to play for in the season finale.

Michigan State enters this game with a a long list of injuries, while the Penn State roster had 20-plus players sit out in last week’s victory over Rutgers due to a flu outbreak within the team. Both teams have several question marks in terms of availability on Saturday.

Here is the Land Grant Trophy game preview:

Tale of the Tape

Michigan State:
2021 Record — 9-2 (6-2 in Big Ten)

2021 Offense (per game averages) — 429.1 total yards, 243.27 passing yards, 185.8 rushing yards

2021 Defense (per game averages) — 463.4 total yards allowed, 339.91 passing yards allowed, 123.5 rushing yards allowed

2021 Cumulative Points Scored: 353 (32.09 ppg)

2021 Cumulative Points Allowed: 281 (25.55 ppg)

Current SP+ Ranking: 34th

Penn State:
2021 Record — 7-4 (4-4 in Big Ten)

2021 Offense (per game averages) — 381.41 total yards, 270.91 passing yards, 110.5 rushing yards

2021 Defense (per game averages) — 334.31 yards allowed, 202.91 passing yards allowed, 131.4 rushing yards allowed

2021 Cumulative Points Scored: 288 (26.18 ppg)

2021 Cumulative Points Allowed: 171 (15.55 ppg)

Current SP+ Ranking: 12th

Series History/All-Time Records

All-time head-to-head record: Tied 17-17-1
Current streak: Penn State has won two games in a row
Last Michigan State Win: Oct. 13, 2018
Last Penn State Win: Dec. 12, 2020
Michigan State all-time record: 719-472-44 (.600)
Penn State all-time record: 909-402-42 (.687)

Uniform Watch:

Michigan State will wear green tops with white lettering and numbering, green pants and white helmets with a green Spartan head logo and green stripe down the middle.

A closer look at this week’s threads:

No official word on Penn State’s uniform, but it is safe to assume the classic away uniforms with white tops, white pants and the white helmets with the blue stripe down the middle.

Previous Game Results

Ohio State 56, Michigan State 7

No need to get too detailed here — this one was brutal for Michigan State players, coaches, staff, fans and everybody involved. Ohio State scored on each of its first seven possessions and took a 49-0 lead into halftime. The final score could have been a lot worse, but the Buckeyes took the starters out after just one possession in the third quarter. Michigan State scored its lone touchdown in the early fourth quarter on a Payton Thorne touchdown pass to true freshman Keon Coleman, and Ohio State would add one more touchdown in the fourth quarter. OSU’s C.J. Stroud, Chris Olave, Garrett Wilson and Jaxon Smith-Njiba each had a field day in the passing game. You can read the full game recap here.

Penn State 28, Rutgers 0

Penn State was without starting quarterback Sean Clifford for most of the game, and as mentioned, 20 or maybe even 30 other players missed the game due to a flu outbreak within the team. That did not hinder the Nittany Lions from shutting out the Rutgers Scarlet Knights, however. Clifford did play early, but left the game due to the illness, and backup quarterback Christian Veilleux played well, throwing for 235 yards and three touchdowns. Penn State didn’t get on the board until just before halftime, but scored three touchdowns in the second half. The Nittany Lions’ defense held Rutgers to just 160 total yards, and the Scarlet Knights never really threatened in this one.

Key Matchups

Payton Thorne/Michigan State wide receivers versus Penn State secondary: Penn State only allows 202.9 yards through the air per game, which ranks 30th nationally, and just 5.72 yards allowed per completion, which is fifth nationally. Michigan State could very well be without its top two wide receivers — Jayden Reed and Jalen Nailor — so Payton Thorne may have to rely on Tre Mosley, Montorie Foster and true freshman Keon Coleman as his top targets on Saturday against a very tough secondary led by safeties Jaquan Brisker and Ji’Ayir Brown. Thorne struggled last week and needs to have a bounce-back game for the Spartans to get a victory.

Jahan Dotson versus Ronald Williams/Chester Kimbrough: The Michigan State secondary had a tough matchup last week against three Ohio State wide receivers who may all play in the NFL, and the Buckeyes torched the Spartans all game long. Things don’t get much easier for MSU this week, as Jahan Dotson is second in the Big Ten in receptions (83) and receiving yards (1,045) and third in touchdowns (10). Penn State is also expected to have Sean Clifford back at quarterback this week. Whether Ronald Williams, Chester Kimbrough, or somebody else is matched up with Dotson, the defensive backs have to limit his effectiveness, or else it could be a long day for the Spartans once again.

Kenneth Walker III/Michigan State offensive line versus Penn State defensive front: The Nittany Lions aren’t bad against the run, ranking 35th in the nation at 131.4 rushing yards allowed per game, but Michigan State has to keep Penn State’s strong pass defense honest with a balanced offensive attack, and Kenneth Walker III can have success against this unit. The MSU offensive line is banged up and had a poor showing against Ohio State last weekend, getting dominated in the trenches, so the unit must rebound on Saturday. While Walker also appears to be dealing with some minor injuries, a strong showing from him will not only help the Spartans get a victory, but will also lock up the Doak Walker Award and potentially get Walker voted in as a Heisman Trophy finalist as well.

Game Info

Time: 3:30 Eastern Time (Kickoff at 3:36 p.m.)
TV Channel: ABC
Location: Spartan Stadium, East Lansing, Michigan
Weather expectations: Snow showers likely with temperatures around 32 degrees at kickoff. Winds blowing southeast at five-to-eight miles per hour.
Line: Penn State -1.5


Despite last week’s embarrassment, Michigan State still has a lot to play for and a lot to prove on senior day. A victory for Michigan State means a 10-win season, an undefeated home record, a likely New Year’s Six bowl bid and, of course, that beautiful Land Grant Trophy.

Who is actually going to be available for Michigan State, though? It’s quite possible that the team’s top-two wide receivers, Jalen Nailor and Jayden Reed, are both out. Kenneth Walker III seems to be playing banged up as well. Left tackle Jarrett Horst still seems to be away from the team (unclear what his status is). Cornerback Charles Brantley will likely still be out while several others in the secondary are playing with ailments. The linebacker duo of Cal Haladay and Quavaris Crouch have been banged up as well, while defensive tackle Simeon Barrow has missed some time. Kicker Matt Coghlin has also been hurt, which has affected MSU’s kicking game. For Penn State, how many Nittany Lions are still dealing with illness? Penn State is also without defensive tackle PJ Mustipher and some others.

Oh, and now Michigan State is reportedly dealing with a flu bug of its own, so even more players may be out.

With so many starters out or not playing at 100 percent, it will be interesting to see if Michigan State has enough depth to win this game or not. Penn State has a tremendous defense, but an inefficient offense. Penn State can take advantage of Michigan State’s last-ranked passing defense, but the Nittany Lions struggle to run the ball and are one-dimensional. Michigan State has a path to victory here, and with a New Year’s Six bowl and rivalry trophy on the line, I expect the newly-extended Mel Tucker to have the Spartans focused and ready to play — no matter who is out there. But it won’t be an easy task against a solid Penn State team.

For additional thoughts and analysis on Penn State, read our “Get to Know the Opponent” piece, check out our Q&A with Black Shoes Diaries.


Who wins the Land Grant Trophy?

This poll is closed

  • 40%
    Penn State
    (49 votes)
  • 59%
    Michigan State
    (71 votes)
120 votes total Vote Now