Following the addition of Penn State to the Big Ten, Michigan State and the Nittany Lions began one of the most often mocked, but under-appreciated trophy rivalries in the crazy sport that we call college football. That series continued at the end of every regular season from 1994 until 2011 (and 2001 due to a rescheduled game against Missouri following the terrorist attacks of September 11 and 2004 when MSU played at Hawaii in December). Then it resumed in 2014 through 2016 with the realignment of the Big Ten’s divisions. Finally, after a break in the series from 2017-2019, the PEW PEW LAZERZ Land Grant Trophy has seemingly returned for good to the final regular season Saturday of the schedule for the Michigan State Spartans and Penn State Nittany Lions. That is one of the few bright spots of the 2020 football season’s long-term outcomes as rotating with Maryland and Rutgers basically made the season feel over by mid-November, which, speaking quite frankly as a fan, sucked.
2020 Record: 4-5
The Nittany Lions essentially had the tale of two seasons last fall. PSU opened with five-straight losses before rattling off four-straight victories to end the regular season and choosing to forgo a bowl game. Opt outs by key players and off the field life stressors such as head coach James Franklin sending his family off to a long-term vacation home during the regular season due to an immune issue one of his child has certainly had to play key factors in the season’s struggles. Following the season’s low point of a 30-23 loss at Nebraska and a 20-point loss to Iowa the following week, Penn State did right the ship finally with a 27-17 win over Michigan, a 23-7 win over Rutgers, and a 39-24 victory on this author’s birthday as he watched in the press box as the Spartans choked away a halftime lead in the regular season finale. Finally, a 56-21 blowout of a Lovie Smith-less Fighting Illini squad in “Champions Week” sent PSU off to the offseason in style.
Series History: 17-17-1
While this series dates back to 1914, it was 8-2 in favor of Michigan State prior to the Nittany Lions joining the Big Ten. That includes a series record five wins by MSU from 1949-1966. The largest margin of victory by Michigan State, however, came in 2015 in a 55-16 win. Penn State’s best streak was a four-game win streak from 1993-1996, and the largest margin of victory was in 2002 in a 61-7 win. PSU has an active two-game win streak in the series currently.
2021 Offensive Outlook
Back for the Nittany Lions will be redshirt senior Sean Clifford at quarterback. After redshirting as a freshman in 2017, Clifford became the first PSU quarterback since Matt McGloin in 2010 to throw a touchdown pass on his first career pass attempt, a 34-yarder against Pittsburg on Sept. 8, 2018. Clifford saw mop up duty in 2018, however, but came in as a redshirt sophomore as the starter in 12 games, earning All-Big Ten honorable mention by the coaches and media in 2019. Last season in 2020 saw Clifford complete 152 passes, good for 60.6 percent completion rate and 1,883 passing yards. He averaged 7.5 yards per attempt, throwing 16 touchdown passes total while also throwing nine interceptions. Clifford will enter the 2021 season ranking as the current all-time leader in career passing efficiency (146.8), second in completion percentage (.600), third in yards per attempt (8.2), and fifth in touchdown percentage (7.11). All told, PSU will be in good hands at quarterback.
Back at the wide receiver position will be Jahan Dotson, who was far and away the leading wide receiver for Penn State in 2020. The senior had 52 total receptions last season for 884 yards and eight touchdowns. He also led the team in average yards per catch at 17. As pictured above, Dotson also returned one of those eight total touchdowns on a punt return for 81 yards with 11:24 left in the game against Michigan State, proving to be the final score of the game. Also back will be sophomore Parker Washington who was second in receptions (36), second in receiving yards (489), and second in touchdowns (six).
At running back, a young trio carried the bulk of snaps in 2020, but transfer senior John Lovett out of Baylor seems set to take over as lead back for 2021. While then freshman Keyvone Lee led in 2020 on attempts (89), yards (438), yards per carry for those with more than 10 attempts (4.9), and touchdowns (four), and the freshman also added 12 receptions for 66 yards. Meanwhile, Lovett’s best season at Baylor was as a junior when he had 103 total rushing attempts for 655 yards, good for 6.4 yards per carry, and five touchdowns. He added eight receptions for another 66 yards. Overall on his career, Lovett totals 1,803 rushing yards and 17 rushing touchdowns. He should be a big addition to the Nittany Lion roster, though Penn State did rank fifth in the league in rushing yards per game last season without him.
Overall, Penn State ranked third in scoring, despite the poor overall record. The offense was not really the team’s issue in 2020, and looks to return most of its key production. Add in the fact that 2020 All-Big Ten second-team guard Mike Miranda and All-Big Ten third-team tackle Rasheed Walker also return, and the Nittany Lions’ offense looks just as potent for next season.
2021 Defensive Outlook
The Penn State defense was never going to get linebacker Micah Parsons back in 2020 as a result of he declared for the NFL Draft after the season was initially canceled and then reinstated, but he instead opted out/was not allowed to return due to coaching staff decisions. It is unclear from an outsiders perspective which is the exact reason. However, the 2021 defense as a result should benefit from the added experience gained on the field despite the 2020 statistics setback of losing such a key player.
Back for Penn State in 2021 at middle linebacker, however, is the team leader in total tackles for 2020 (60), redshirt senior Ellis Brooks. Brooks finished 10th overall in the league for total tackles, while notching a team high 34 assisted tackles and ranking third on the team in solo tackles with 26. He added in one pass breakup to his stats to go alongside two forced fumbles. Against Michigan State, he recorded a tackle for loss and quarterback hurry.
Also back for Penn State will be senior linebacker Jesse Luketa, who ranked second on the team with 59 total tackles in 2020, second in solo tackles (31), and second in assisted tackles (28). Luketa also registered two passes defended, one coming against MSU, and one fumble recovery.
Back in the secondary are 2020 All-Big Ten honorable mention cornerbacks senior Tariq Castro-Fields and redshirt sophomore Joey Porter Jr., who also had All-Big Ten third-team honors from the media in addition to honorable mention form the conference’s coaches. Castro-Fields made three starts in 2020 before suffering a season ending injury. He still totaled 12 tackles, six solo, and had a pass break up against Indiana. Porter started in all nine games last season, ranking eighth on the team in total tackles (33), but fourth in solo tackles (24). Porter also ranked second on the team in passes defended (four). Also returning is fifth-year senior safety and All-Big Ten third-team (coaches) selection Jaquan Brisker. He was third in total tackles (57), first in solo tackles (33), and third in assisted tackles (24). Brisker also led the team in pass breakups (six), which was tied for seventh in the league, had seven passes defended, good for 11th in the Big Ten, and grabbed an interception against the Spartans in the first quarter that he returned for 17 yards. Jalen Nailor managed to force a fumble, however, and it was recovered by MSU’s Matt Carrick.
Gone for Penn State are defensive ends Jayson Oweh and Shaka Toney, both All-Big Ten first-team selections in 2020, and both now in the NFL. Also gone is All-Big Ten honorable mention defensive tackle Antonio Shelton who transferred to Florida. Coming in from the transfer portal to help fill the losses are Duke defensive tackle Derrick Tangelo and Temple defensive end Arnold Ebiketie. Ebiketie in particular did earn a mention as a top-25 impact transfer per The Athletic. Otherwise, PSU defensive end J.J. Mustipher and tackle Adisa Isaac were former top-100 recruits as well who are projected to start in 2021.
Overall, Penn State’s defense finished sixth in the league last year in scoring, allowing 27.7 points per game. In terms of average yards, however, the Nittany Lions were the third stingiest defense in the Big Ten, giving up an average of just 328.8 yards per game. The defense clocked the fourth lowest average rushing yards per game at just 130.2, and was the second lowest passing yards per game in the Big Ten at just 198.6. While the defensive line has a few question marks, the linebacker corps and secondary seems poised to keep the pressure on any offense the defense faces.
Why No. 4?
As good as the Nittany Lions typically are most seasons since joining the Big Ten, the fact is the Big Ten teams ahead of them were the hands down better teams last season and have all the pieces to be better again next season. As for the teams behind Penn State? They either lost too many key pieces or lack the talent, coaching, or a combination to jump Penn State.
The Spartans were giving Penn State everything they had last year in the first half. It looked like it might actually be just enough. Then you suddenly saw James Franklin make halftime adjustments you normally do not, the Spartan starters faded, and it was yet another double-digit loss for Michigan State. Despite ranking PSU at No. 4, I am not sure I count this game as a certain loss. If Michigan State can find that next gear in the second half for 2021, combined with a home-field advantage, and potentially the need for a final win to achieve bowl eligibility? Maybe, just maybe, Michigan State can take the lead once again in the rivalry between the two premier land grant universities of America.