As Michigan State (5-6, 3-5 in conference play) and Penn State (9-2, 6-2 in conference play) prepare for battle in Happy Valley to determine the ownership of the Land-Grant Trophy, I was lucky enough to sit down and pick the brain of the venerable Brian Bennett of Black Shoe Diaries, the best source of information on Penn State athletics.
It has been an interesting season for Penn State, which has been playing its best football in recent weeks after a tough loss to Ohio State and a blowout defeat against Michigan. We touched on a number of topics, including quarterback controversy, the efficacy of the College Football Playoff rankings and Michigan State’s prospects for retaining the grandest trophy in collegiate athletics.
1. What is the general vibe of Penn State fans about the season as a whole? After the loss to Michigan and the near-upset of OSU, does a win and a New Year’s Six bowl satisfy the fans?
Bill: About that New Year’s Six bowl…check question No. 2. I think reaction is mixed. I said this could wind up being a sort of hollow 10-2 year (if PSU wins Saturday) because it will absolutely lack a marquee win. I took some grief for that and I do acknowledge anyone would have signed up for 10-2 back in August. I speak for myself, and a fair number of fans, in saying that the Michigan loss was just so disheartening. It was a great opportunity and Penn State was outclassed in every way that day. Even with nothing but dominant wins and an amazing effort (not fully reflected on scoreboard) against Ohio State since, I still believe fans want more from this year. This team is good — and young — so we would all relish a chance to be on the big stage in the Orange Bowl or Cotton Bowl or Rose Bowl.
2. How frustrated are Penn State fans about the recent College Football Playoff rankings? It seems like Penn State is the chief victim of #SECbias this past week.
Bill: Upset. It seems Penn State could be blocked from getting to a major bowl and forced to settle for Citrus — disappointing considering Penn State has mostly dominated its entire schedule outside of those two losses mentioned in the previous question. The Lions are sort of stuck where they are. They’ve won past three weeks in dominating fashion and mild chaos has happened. Meanwhile, this is my rare homer take taking over, I would absolutely take Penn State over Tennessee, LSU and maybe even others right now. This team has improved so much in past four or five weeks, but facing banged up Maryland, Indiana and Rutgers hasn’t allowed for an eye-catching performance. Instead, Penn State is left playing transitive theory football: “Look how we are dominating these teams that tested Ohio State/Michigan.”
3. What are the feelings of Penn State fans about the quarterback situation? Is there fatigue regarding Sean Clifford, and hope for Drew Allar? Is there trust in James Franklin’s quarterback development?
Bill: This is meant as no disrespect — but this is a question I’ve gotten every single Q and A this year because it is THE question to ask. Hence, there’s been fatigue since the opening week when Sean Clifford both won with his play and nearly lost with his play in the game at Purdue. I think on this senior day that Clifford deserves all the cheers as he’s stuck through everything and accumulated a lot of records. But, there’s also no doubt that Penn State has been held back by quarterback play. Allar is the first true “everyone wants him, can’t miss QB prospect” that Franklin has gotten to enroll. So this will tell a lot about development — something that draws grimaces when you think about Clifford from 2019 to now.
4. What about Michigan State scares you? What weaknesses do you think Penn State can exploit?
Bill: The jerseys. No. Really. Michigan State has delivered Franklin two of his worst beatdowns (2014, 2015) and two of his most what just happened losses (2017, 2018). Even last year, when Penn State lost a second half lead in the snow, is scarring.
But to be, not less serious but more specific — Payton Thorne (and Jayden Reed and Keon Coleman). Thorne was amazing for a half against Penn State in 2020 and good last year. He has the receivers and isn’t afraid to test a Penn State secondary that could be down Joey Porter Jr. and was shredded late by the pinpoint passes of C.J. Stroud to Marvin Harrison Jr.
5. Finally, what is your prediction for the game on Saturday?
Bill: I’m realizing I’m old as I actually remember watching the first Big Ten matchup between these two teams — I was young and saw Penn State rally late for a win in East Lansing. In MOST, certainly not all, years since then, the team with more to play for has been the winner…especially when it comes to close out the season.
While Michigan State is playing for bowl eligibility, I think Penn State is playing to cement itself as a top-tier program and a player on the national stage in 2023. With that in mind — and bolstered by a senior day crowd — Penn State 37, Michigan State 20.
Thank you to Brian for his thorough analysis and good thoughts. Be sure to follow Brian on Twitter, and follow Black Shoe Diaries as well.