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Mel Tucker out-coached Penn State’s James Franklin in Michigan State’s 30-27 win

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The Spartans finished 10-2 in Mel Tucker’s second season with Michigan State.

NCAA Football: Penn State at Michigan State Raj Mehta-USA TODAY Sports

The Michigan State Spartans football team capped off its season with a 30-27 win over Penn State in a blizzard on Saturday in East Lansing. The victory checked off a satisfying ending to head coach Mel Tucker’s second regular season, which he finished with a 10-2 record and in third place in the Big Ten East.

Tucker signed a 10-year, $95 million extension with the Spartans this week, ironically following a humiliating 56-7 blowout loss to Ohio State. On the other side, Penn State signed head coach James Franklin to a 10-year, $75 million extension.

Questions rose prior to the game surrounding Heisman candidate Kenneth Walker III and his ankle injury, both Jalen Nailor (hand) and Jayden Reed (foot), along with a report that the Spartans were caught with a flu bug this week. Some were also unsure of how MSU would respond, considering its loss to the Buckeyes.

That loss didn’t seem to bother the Spartans. To open the game, Michigan State quarterback Payton Thorne marched straight down the field for an opening score, ending with Walker’s two-yard touchdown run.

Thorne had a great game, going 19-for-30 with 268 yards and two touchdowns. On third downs, Thorne was 10-for-14 with 171 yards. However, the story of the game may have been coaching.

Tucker has been solid in his approach for a majority of the season. At times, critical trick plays have fallen flat, specifically against Purdue. Still, key blitzes and edge rushes, along with superb play-calling from offensive coordinator Jay Johnson, have given Michigan State an identity. Purdue head coach Jeff Brohm had a rare edge over Tucker.

For Penn State, Franklin has looked like the 2018 version of Jim Harbaugh all season, not getting the job done in many phases. The answer seemed obvious for the Nittany Lions: pass the football.

Michigan State cannot stop the pass; the secondary is one of the worst in college football with a pass defense that ranks dead last in FBS in yardage allowed three the air. Purdue knew that, but despite the one-dimensional offense, the Boilermakers threw for 536 yards, mainly throwing screen plays, wide receiver drags, play action, and other short plays to set up a big pass.

Unfortunately for Penn State, that approach was not taken. There were several turning points for the Nittany Lions, most frustratingly when trailing 23-20 with 13:27 left in the game. Penn State was held at a third-down-and-seven. Pass the ball? No sir. Running back Keyvone Lee barged up the middle for a six yard gain. Not bad, but then it was fourth-and-one. Pass? Nope. The Spartans stopped Lee immediately for no gain and a turnover on downs.

Penn State was so committed to the run, you’d assume better results. The Nittany Lions ran for 61 yards and averaged 2.3 yards per carry. Meanwhile, Penn State quarterback Sean Clifford was 23-for-34 with 313 yards and three touchdowns.

Maybe it was a poor offensive line that Franklin didn’t trust. Clifford was sacked four times for -25 yards. Michigan State is a top-three Big Ten team in sacks, with 37 this season.

A better game plan may have been to get snappy throws over the middle or toward the sideline for minimal gains, to set up big plays downfield and beat Michigan State’s struggling defensive backs. In other words, do not run the ball. Teams that run against Michigan State do not win.

Maybe it’s recency bias, but Penn State has been underachieving over the last two seasons. Franklin has led the Nittany Lions to four New Year’s Six bowl games since 2016, however, he is 11-10 in his last two seasons.

As for Michigan State, a New Year’s Six bowl bid of its own may be on the horizon. Some projections have the Spartans playing Notre Dame in the Fiesta Bowl.

By that time, the Spartans should have Nailor back, kicker Matt Coghlin, Walker and others healthy. Michigan State is a top-10 team when healthy, but the gap is much wider when the Spartans are not fully healthy (as proven by Ohio State last week). Wherever Michigan State ends up, it’s only progress from here.